The US Census will begin asking “are you a descendant of slaves” on government forms as a means to redefine how race and ethnicity are measured.
The U.S. government is considering asking Black Americans on federal forms, including the census, whether their ancestors were enslaved.
In a proposed update to how the government tracks Americans’ race and ethnicity, the Biden administration is asking the public for input on how it might go about differentiating Black people who are descendants of slaves in America from those whose families arrived more recently as immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean or other countries.
The idea of adding more-detailed categories to the census has been gaining currency among some Black Americans, who say society too often conflates their experiences with those of Black immigrants, who only started moving to the U.S. in meaningful numbers in the past few decades. Roughly one in five Black people in the U.S. are immigrants or their children, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Supporters of the change say one reason they are pushing it is to quantify who would be eligible to receive reparations for slavery should the government ever agree to pay them. An effort to make such payments has stalled in Congress, though local efforts have gained some steam. In San Francisco, the city’s Board of Supervisors is debating a proposal to award eligible Black residents up to $5 million per person in restitution, one of a menu of preliminary recommendations that include free homes, guaranteed incomes and debt and tax relief.
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Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and by researchers at Duke University, among others, shows that Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved tend to lag behind in wealth and education compared with more-recent arrivals.
“America sees Black people as a monolith,” said Chad Brown, spokesperson for the National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants, which backs reparations and is pushing for the change. “When you say all Black people are the same, you are ignoring differences in culture, ancestry, economics, and you are doing a disservice to everyone lumped into that group.”
The potential change is one of several the Biden administration is thinking about adopting to redefine how race and ethnicity are measured on government forms, which typically dictate how other institutions collect demographic data.
According to a report conducted by the UN agencies for labour and migration and the Walk Free Foundation, 50 million people are still stuck in modern slavery, either as forced labour or forced marriage.
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