NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Determining Ancestry From Census Report Becomes Tricky

May 28, 2002

People are increasingly unwilling to record their ethnic or racial heritage on census forms, officials report. There was a brief moment in the 1970s when it became fashionable for second- and third-generation European immigrants to reassert their heritage.

But those days are all but gone -- particularly among the nation's oldest immigrant stocks, such as those from Ireland, Germany or Poland. On the other hand, those whose ancestry is Sub-Saharan African or West Indian are more likely to report those ties.

  • The number of people marking a specific ancestry declined in the 2000 census -- while the number designating "U.S." or "American" rose.
  • Census officials have found that when the bureau uses an example on its forms -- "such as Cajun," which it did in 1990 -- the number of respondents identifying with that classification rises.
  • All of this makes for difficulties in interpretation and throws into question the validity of ethnicity data.
  • Even in New York -- where more than one-third of the population is foreign born -- 238,000 New Yorkers simply declared themselves American, a rise of about 81,000 from the 1990 census.

Phillip Kasinitz, a sociologist with the City University of New York Graduate Center, observes that the Irish "are thoroughly Irish for five generations in New York and they cross the Hudson River and they become plain old white people."

Source: Michael Powell, "Rethinking Who They Are," Washington Post, May 25, 2002.


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