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Racialization, Recognition, and Rights: Lumping and Splitting Multiracial Asian Americans in the 2000 Census
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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.2 (2000) 191-217



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Racialization, Recognition, and Rights: Lumping and Splitting Multiracial Asian Americans in the 2000 Census

Rebecca Chiyoko King


The 2000 Census will mark a dramatic change in the way that "race" is officially enumerated in the United States to allow people to check more than one race. This is a significant change for the way people do and understand the concept of race, and will have potentially far-reaching effects for multiracial Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asian Pacific Islander communities. The Census, as a representation of the state, is an ideal place to see how race is changing both practically and conceptually as people lobby the Census Bureau to change racial categories to accurately reflect their multiracial understanding. 1 In this article, I examine the impact of changing the Census to allow people to check more than one race box on Asian Pacific Americans (APAs). 2

Race is now widely recognized as being a contested and changing, socially constructed category. 3 As historical proof of this, APAs have long been unable to fit the racial labels used by the U.S. government to classify them. For example, the plaintiffs in the infamous cases of Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922) and United States v. Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923) failed in their attempts to be considered "not Asian, Caucasian/white" in order to become naturalized citizens of the U.S. Those cases foreshadowed a legal framework that would continue throughout the 1900s to remind APAs that they were racially different, not white, and therefore ineligible for American citizenship. 4 There has never been a comfortable fit historically for Asian Americans with racial categories used by the U.S. [End Page 191] Census and that discomfort with racial categories and the use of those categories has taken on new meaning for Asian Pacific Islander (API) Americans as we approach a new millennium and the 2000 Census where race can be multiply enumerated. The policy implications of changing the way we do race has particularly far-reaching effects for APIs because of the size of the community. This in turn will impact the uses of racial data for the purpose of voting districts, affirmative action, equal opportunity employment, as well as federal funding for API issues and organizations. In this article, I examine the push to change the Census and the way it enumerates race. I focus, in particular, on one successful change -- the ability to check one or more racial box. As we will see, allowing people to mark one or more races will possibly alter the size and definition of who is a part of the APA community. This is directly linked to questions that continue to be posed about how the data will be tabulated and used. This strategy of checking one or more represents a move towards splitting the Asian American community into parts instead of the past tendency to lump Asian Americans together either out of ignorance of their diversity or for political gain.

Historical Lumping

In 1900, there was recognition of the differences amongst APAs as they were categorized in the U.S. Census as Chinese and Japanese. 5 Often these ethnic differences were thought of as racial differences, and this was reinforced by the immigrants themselves as they thought of themselves as not just different Asian ethnicities, but as different races altogether. For example, Japanese racial thinking about being a "pure and superior" race, especially compared to Chinese and Koreans, may have been a factor in the conflicts in the Pacific. 6 Even today, many APAs don't identify themselves as such but instead by their ethnic identity and think of "Asian Pacific American" as a political label and not a racial one. 7 It wasn't until the push for accountable civil rights, based on racial protected group status, produced Directive 15 in 1977 in the Office of Management and Budget, that the impetus to lump Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, South Asian...