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OPINION

Will a new census proposal bring needed visibility — or racialized blowback?

It would give better visibility to populations long ignored or mischaracterized in federal demographics data. It would also decrease the white population count at a time when the backlash against the racial justice movement is particularly palpable.

A woman wears a pin that states "I VOTE I CENSUS I COUNT" outside the Kendell Arms polling location on Nov. 8 in Philadelphia.Mark Makela/Getty

A new Biden administration proposal to make a small change in the way race and ethnicity are measured in the US Census could have a big impact — in one way or another.

It could bring better visibility to populations long ignored or mischaracterized in federal demographics data, leading to better understanding and representation of the people living in America.

But if past is prologue, it could also serve as the latest flashpoint in the nation’s increasingly racialized politics.

The proposal would revise ethnic and racial classifications by creating a new ethnic category for those of Middle Eastern and North African descent, who until now had been counted as white. It would also remove the requirement that those who identify as Latino also separately choose a race, such as Black or white.

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If adopted by the Census Bureau, the new classifications will almost certainly do something else: decrease the white population count.

This comes at a time in America when the backlash against the racial justice movement that took hold in 2020 is particularly palpable. Those protesting police brutality against Black people have been condemned as terrorists. States have passed waves of voter suppression laws that experts say disproportionately affect communities of color. Books written by and about people of color are being banned from classrooms and libraries after disingenuously fomented outrage over critical race theory. Florida officials went so far as to block African American studies advanced placement classes. Jim Crow made quite a comeback.

This is, of course, a reaction to the fact that America is changing. It’s becoming more diverse by the day, and that shift is occurring at a faster rate than previously thought. While estimates once predicted that non-Hispanic white Americans would make up less than 50 percent of the US population by 2050, the latest census projection puts that date closer to 2044.

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But one thing hasn’t changed — yet: The center of political power is still predominantly white and male.

White men make up about 30 percent of the US population, but they held 65 percent of elected state, federal, and local offices in 2021, according to the most recent study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign. While the current Congress is more diverse than ever, it’s still predominately white and male. At the state and local levels, the numbers are most stark: White men occupy about three quarters of governors’ seats. And white men often hold the reins of power in the criminal justice system, making up 71 percent of elected prosecutors and a startling 90 percent of elected sheriffs, according to the Reflective Democracy survey.

And when it comes to race and representation, the politics are already built in. While 38 percent of 2020 Democratic primary candidates were white men, that number increased to 72 percent among Republican candidates — something the survey attributes to the GOP “signaling deep resistance to change.”

Another word for it: fear.

“What this really is about is a shrinking white population and the fear about the resulting loss of power,” said Robyn Autry, an associate professor of sociology at Wesleyan University. “It’s about not wanting to face the reality that you have to share. You have to share — and it might not be on your own terms.”

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This is why the politics surrounding the census — which serves as a basis not only of state and congressional representation but also federal funding and data to understand the racial impact of everything from health outcomes to poverty levels — has always been explosive.

It’s why in 1930 census takers were instructed to use the “one-drop rule” to determine if someone should be categorized as “Negro” and the census also added a new racial category: Mexican. That was an effort to prevent anyone born in Mexico from identifying as white.

It’s why the Trump administration tried to place a citizenship question on the 2020 Census before the former secretary of Commerce’s claim that the question was meant to help the Justice Department better enforce the Voting Rights Act was deemed to be a lie, according to findings by the Office of Inspector General. Evidence from a lawsuit on the matter revealed a sustained effort by the Trump administration to meddle with the census for political benefit and discourage immigrants from participating.

And it’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise if a proposed rule change that could pave a speedier path to becoming a majority-minority nation sparks resistance. That is, and has always been, the American way.


Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at kimberly.atkinsstohr@globe.com. Follow her @KimberlyEAtkins.