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The 2010 Census: Race and Ethnicity

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What do these labels mean?As data analysts recently sifted through the United States 2010 census figures, an unexpected result was noticed: the number of "white" Americans had increased six percent in an era when it was expected to decline. A trend toward larger proportions of minorities in America has been projected for decades and has, in fact, been happening. However, something changed on the 2010 census forms that led to this unexpected bump. Prior to 1980, "Hispanic" was considered a racial distinction. Then, it was removed as an option for racial identity. From 1980 onwards, Hispanics often chose "some other race" in census forms to distinguish their cultural identity from the remaining choices that didn't seem to fit them. In 2010, the census form added directions for Hispanics, instructing them not to consider Hispanic origins as a racial distinction and to select a recognized category such as white or black. As a result, in the 2010 census, Non-Hispanic whites number 196.8 million, but "whites" on the census total 223.6 million.

Forms are just forms, but as the legal forms change, so do the semantic and cultural ideas of what it means to be "white", "black", "Asian", and other races. "What's white in America in 1910, 2010, or even 2011 simply isn't the same," said UNLV sociology professor Robert Lang. At the turn of the 20th century, many "white" European immigrants were not considered white – such as the Italian or Jewish immigrants. Today, younger generations are increasingly identifying themselves as multiple-race, but will still pick a "color" of black or white when forced. Mixed-race marriages in the United States are growing drastically, and in general, people increasingly desire to acknowledge the more complex natures of their heritages. Many whites, while often unknowingly enjoying the status and privilege of light skin that still insidiously permeates American culture, have the desire to identify on some level with their Native American (or other race) great-grandfathers. Similarly, many young people today are rejecting the historical "one drop" idea of what it means to be African American. A vocal movement of young Americans notably came at odds with the identification of President Barack Obama as the first black President of the United States, citing his white mother and grandparents who raised him. They claim he should, if anything, be noted as the first multiracial President, being as much white as he is black. Perhaps, culturally he is more white than black due to who raised him. Further, his black heritage is not really "African American", because his father was not American; by blood he does not share in the historical heritage of African Americans that has made the civil rights struggle so poignant; however, by skin color, American society ties him to this heritage, along with every other dark-skinned individual. Similarly, some Americans are guilty of blocking everyone whose appearance suggests a Middle Eastern or South Asian heritage together as a distinctly troublesome class of "other" in this post-9/11 era.

While young Americans embracing the complexity of race and preferring to acknowledge mixed-race identity is generally considered positive, many minority race leaders are concerned. If President Obama's white heritage is acknowledged as much as his black heritage, many black American leaders see it as a political and cultural loss, and even an undermining of the significance of the civil rights movement. Similarly, Hispanic leaders fret the decline of Hispanic identity as the intentional dismantling of political power of a growing minority at a time when that power is sorely needed due to the ongoing immigration crisis and trampling of worker rights.

It seems certain that racial identity in America will continue to evolve, and that this evolution appears to be increasing at a rate that exceeds the adaptability of the political machinery of the nation and world. The Holy Qur'an acknowledges racial and ethnic distinctions while in the same sentence pointing out that we are all from the same family. We are all brothers and sisters, and our diversity as a people only aids us in recognizing one another, and it has never been a valid basis for discrimination or designation of worth. "O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other [not that ye may despise each other]. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)." (49:13)

Race and ethnicity are at once extremely personal designations and powerful political tools – tools to bring gains for the disenfranchised or tools to subjugate. Every person should be able to embrace every aspect of his/her heritage, whether he appears white, yellow, red, brown, black, or multi-colored. But without a doubt, appearances have mattered and continue to matter; the white with one-eighth Native American blood generally cannot rightfully claim the modern ramifications of the same history as the full or half-blood Native American with distinct racial features and an official tribal identification card. The racial/historical experiences of the two are just not equal, due to the invented injustices imposed by society that linger today. Islam teaches us that God distinguishes us based on righteousness alone, and that similarly in our interactions with one another, honor should not be given based on the artificial constructs of race or class. A scientist cannot determine race by analyzing someone's DNA, because race is not a biological entity; rather, it is something people create and use for both good and bad purposes. As Muslims, we have the obligation to be leaders by example in this, as in all things. While American race will continue to evolve, the ideal is already before us to guide us in our interactions with our brothers and sisters in humanity.

Author of this article: Masooma Beatty
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