A brief history of federal affirmative action action categories

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From Harold Orlans, The politics of minority statistics, Society, May 1989, No. 4, at 24, 24.

In 1956, the Committee on Government Contracts, which monitored compliance with President Eisenhower's orders barring contractor discrimination, initiated what became a recurrent survey of contractor personnel. The survey form asked contractors for the number of their "total," "Negro," and "other minority" employees and, if they had many "other," how many were "Spanish Americans, Orientals, Indians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, etc." The Puerto Rican influx to mainland cities was then receiving much attention.

To count Hispanic employees accurately, Hispanic spokesmen pointed out, a separate line was needed. When some critics said that Jews no longer suffered significant discrimination, three leading Jewish organizations agreed to their deletion. After Hawaii became a state in 1959, members of its congressional delegation called for explicit attention to Oriental employees. Accordingly, the revised 1962 survey form asked for the number of all contractor employees and four separate minorities": Negro, Spanish-American, Oriental, and American Indian.

In time, the definition of each group was modified by an interagency committee representing statistical and civil rights agencies. "Negro" became "black." "SpanishAmerican" became "Spanish-surnamed" and then (since a Mexican American's Irish wife had such a surname but an Irishman's Mexican-American wife did not) "Hispanic origin." The difficulties of distinguishing "blacks," "black Hispanics," and "white Hispanics" and "whites" were addressed, if not eliminated, by a trifurcation into "black (not of Hispanic origin), " "Hispanic origin," and "white (not of Hispanic origin)." "Oriental" became "Asian or Pacific Islander," since Polynesian Hawaiians or the Guamanians in southern California were not "Oriental." Neither were immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka who in 1977 were reclassified from "white" to "Asian" after requesting inclusion in affirmative action programs.

In the Reagan era, bureaucratic resistance hardened, for Arab Americans who sought a similar re-classification are still "white," as are Asian Tatars, Kurds, and Iranians. "American Indian" became "American Indian or Alaskan Native" because Eskimos and Aleuts are not Indians. Thus, by 1977 a recurrent government survey of Negro employees had evolved into an odd five-fold classification of the world's peoples, or of their emigrants and descendants in this nation.

As survey instructions note, the classification reflects disparate factors: race ("Black racial groups of Africa"-but not of Cuba or Melanesia); language or culture ("Spanish culture.., regardless of race"); above all, geography or country of origin, which has the virtues of identifiability and stability. Although not defined, "origin" is central to the classification. "Blacks" and "Hispanics" are persons with "Black racial" or "Spanish" origin, respectively; "whites," "Asians," and "American Indians" are persons "having origins in any of the original peoples" of Europe, Asia, and North America, respectively. The idea of "origin" is clear only if it is not pursued, for the "original peoples" of countless lands (for example, Finland, the Ukraine, the Indus Valley, Palestine, Sicily) are lost in the mists of history.

The classification is full of contradictions. Thus, a descendant of the "original peoples" north of the Rio Grande is an "American Indian"; but south of the river, such a person is "Hispanic" although of Indian stock. Immigrants from Cuba are "Hispanic," but from Brazil they are "white," "black," or "Hispanic." A Sephardic Jew is "Hispanic"; a Hasidic Jew is "white"; an Ethiopian Jew is "black"; if they all enter the United States from Israel, what is their country of origin?