Nikki Haley, Race, and the U.S. Census

This is the kind of post I once would have written on Sepia Mutiny, with the full knowledge that it would have produced a firestorm of controversy. One of my former colleagues over there did cover the story, but as you can see the reaction is pretty much predictable: let's just call her an Uncle Tom because she's pretending to be white (to be fair, the comments do challenge the premise of the post in some interesting ways).

Here I wanted to push past the basic framework that people have for thinking about this issue and suggest that 1) Census and drivers' license racial categories help provoke this problem, since "East Indian" or "South Asian" is not a widely recognized racial category, leaving many people confused; and 2) it would not in any case necessarily be a "racial" sell-out for Haley to identify as white given her economic background, acculturation and appearance. She may just be recording what many other people are already thinking.

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1. Generalized confusion over racial and ethnic categories

As many readers will have seen, it recently came out that Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina had her race listed as "white" on her 2000 voter registration card. The most detailed version of the story I've seen is from USA Today, which reveals that in large part this story has been generated by the Democratic party of South Carolina to try and embarrass the Governor:

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said the 2001 document the party unearthed shows the 39-year-old Haley plays on her race for political convenience.
"She can't even tell the truth about her racial heritage," Harpootlian said.

Haley spokesman Trey Walker said the governor's office did not plan to respond to the Democrats. State Republican Party Executive Director Matt Moore called Harpootlian's criticism "just more theatrics and that's all there is to it."

Haley's 2001 voter registration application was derived from information already on her driver's license.

It was not clear when that information may have been provided, or what options were even available on the form for racial identifiers when it was given.

South Carolina's current driver's license application asks people to identify their race as white, black, Hispanic, Asian or Indian, according to instructions for the form. It doesn't specify whether the description "Indian" refers to someone who is American Indian or of Asian Indian heritage, but it traditionally refers to Native American on government forms. (link)

Of course, "Indian" in South Carolina means Native American, so the only option for Haley other than White or Black is Asian. I myself would put down "Asian" in Haley's shoes, but I think that Indian Americans could be forgiven for not feeling comfortable with that category, since many people continue to understand "Asian" to refer only to East and Southeast Asians.

I posted earlier on the ongoing and broad-ranging confusion in the way government agencies classify different communities by race and ethnicity. The U.S. census racial categories have long been a source of confusion for many immigrant groups in particular. While the approach to race and ethnicity involving Hispanic/Latino people is now impressively nuanced and complex, the approach to immigrants from other parts of the world remains confusing and haphazard. "Asian Indian" is now a category you can check, but the "Other Asian" category seems to invite Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans to check that box despite the obvious connections between the different nations of the Indian subcontinent.

The question of course is what the U.S. government plans to do with "racial" information other than simply record it (as I understand it in countries like France the government does not keep official tallies of its racial and ethnic minorities for fear of encouraging discrimination). While there is an affirmative action argument -- it's important to know whether all members of society are getting proportionate access to government services -- it's not clear to me that Indians and Pakistanis would want or expect to be treated differently by a government agency based on their ethnic/racial background. I maintain that it would be far more sensible to have a broader category called "South Asian" that would include everyone deriving from the Indian subcontinent; other sensible categories would be "East Asian" and "Southeast Asian."

A second issue pertains more specifically to Sikhs and the "Sikh American" community. Many Sikhs I know in the U.S. do not identify strongly as "Indian American." Some who dis-identify as Indian come from families with strong separatist bents, going back to the "Khalistani" days of the 1980s. Others may have more muted ideological investments (i.e., they do not actively support the creation of a separate Sikh state of "Khalistan"), but still may have been raised in environments where Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims did not mingle much (this diasporic separatism is itself a legacy of the tensions in India from the 1980s). I do not know much about the Randhawa family in South Carolina, but certainly many of the Sikh families I knew when I lived in North Carolina seemed to fit this bill quite well; they had little connection to Punjabi Hindus and virtually no social connection to non-Punjabi speaking Indians. These are Sikhs that identify more strongly as "Sikh American" than as "Indian American"; I doubt that this applies to Haley herself because she has converted to Christianity, but it could, for some Sikhs, potentially add to the confusion at least regarding whether to check the box for "Indian" or "Asian Indian." Indian is a nationality; "South Asian" may be defined as a "race," depending on how we define race. In any case, "South Asian" was not one of the choices available to Governor Haley.

Given all this confusion, I think it may be wise not to jump to conclusions regarding the racial identification on Nikki Haley's voter registration card.

(I should also point out that Nikki Haley is far from the only one to have this confusion. Amongst second generation South Asian Americans, a full 25% of them checked "white" on the 1990 census, while 5% checked "black".)

2. Identifying as "White"

When Italians, Greeks, and Eastern European Jews started immigrating to the U.S. en masse in the early 20th century, they were not seen by other Americans originating from Northern and Western European countries as "white," at least not white in the same way they saw themselves as white. The "ethnic difference" of these immigrants was visible and it presented a clear social barrier.

Over time, of course, those groups were assimilated, and today Italian Americans, Irish Americans, and Ashkenazi Jews who have a strong sense of identification with their families' countries of origin are seen as "white ethnics." Ethnicity is now seen as a barrier that can be easily crossed and lose its significance over time, while "race" is reserved to describe visibly different minority groups.

The question I often have for South Asian Americans, especially those who come from affluent backgrounds and whose acculturation is largely to Euro-American ("white") norms, is whether they really think they are so going to be very different from white ethnic communities down the road.

Isn't it fair that some South Asian Americans with little connection to South Asian culture or language would see themselves (and be seen as) "white" by others in their communities? Isn't it possible to be of South Asian origin and "white" at the same time?

To be clear, I myself don't describe myself as white. I just don't see why other South Asians shouldn't be allowed to do so if they have a strong identification with Euro-American cultural norms and others in the community accept it. To make this identification doesn't even require that you ignore or hide your family background; but it seems inevitable that for a significant number of South Asian Americans going forward their ethnic identity will play for them rather the same role it does for Italian Americans -- it's in your name, and maybe visible in your complexion (though with the growth of intermarriage this too may fade), but it doesn't necessarily pose any kind of other meaningful social barrier.

I understand that in the African American community this kind of thinking is deeply frowned upon, since it has a history going back to the Jim Crow era -- the old legacy of "passing" to avoid racial discrimination, which in many cases prevented true solidarity from taking hold. Even identifying as "multiracial" as Tiger Woods did many years ago is controversial along those lines: you are either with us in struggle ("black" as a term suggesting a racial identity that is always political), or you are not.

But in fact South Asian American immigrants do not share that history; many of us have never experienced that kind of discrimination, and it's unclear to me what political or ideological power comes with identifying as "Asian," as Nikki Haley presumably should have done to avoid the censure of the Democratic party in her home state.

I personally do feel a sense of political solidarity with other "brown" and "Desi" people owing to who I am and my personal cultural values and orientation. But I also know plenty of South Asian Americans for whom this is not really the case, and I'm not at all invested in policing whether they or their children see themselves as ethnically "white" or "South Asian," since it seems that anyway most people are not clear what these categories really mean.


See this interesting discussion at Brownpundits.