The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

How Well Do You Know America's Racial Classification System? (Second of a Series)


As discussed in my forthcoming book Classified (out in less than 3 weeks!), contrary to popular belief, racial and ethnic classification in the US is not solely a matter of personal choice. The federal Office of Management and Budget created a classification scheme in 1978 to be used by all federal agencies, and barely amended since. The classifications you see on employment forms, applications for mortgages, applications for university admission, and so on, are taken from the official federal classifications. Importantly, while these forms rarely include instructions, the OMB classifications have official, legally binding definitions.

With that background, let's go to our second quiz, involving the Asian American classificaiton.

(1) Here are some countries in Asia: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Armenia. Americans with ancestors in which of these countries are classified as Asian American?

(2) Johnnie grew up in California, but his mom and dad grew up on one of the smaller islands of the Phillipines. Is Johnnie an Asian American or a Pacific Islander, or both?

(3) The Lopez family from Argentina moved to Japan in 1920. In 1980, the whole family, still composed solely of individuals with origins in Argentina, moved to the US. Is the family classified as Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, or both?




Asian American is defined as person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.

(1) There is some ambiguity here, but in practice it seems that only Pakistan qualifies. Iran and Afghanistan are classified as being in the Middle East, which makes their residents white, not Asian. Armenia is not in the Far East or the Indian subcontinent. For Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, these classifications traditionally were interpreted by country of origin, and given that the latter were Soviet Republics, and the USSR was considered a white/European country, their residents were classified as white.

Note that I will occasionally get a question about whether an Ashkenazi Jew from somewhere like Tajikistan is "Asian American." The answer to that seems to definitely be no. Even if one posited that Tajiks generally should be classified as Asian American, note that the official definition requires descent from one of the "original peoples" of the area, which Ashkenazi Jews do not have.

(2) Asians and Pacific Islanders were classified together in one category until 1997, until Native Hawaiians successfully lobbied for a new classification of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. They did so because they found that as part of the same category as Asians, they not only weren't eligible for affirmative action at "mainland" schools, they actively faced discrimination. But while the Philipines is literally a group of Pacific Islands, Filipino Americans remained classified as Asian Americans, not Pacific Islanders. The latter is limited to Americans origins in places like Samoa and Tonga.

(3) If members of the Lopez family consider themselves to be Hispanic, then they meet the official definition of being of Spanish origin or culture. No matter how many generations a Latin American family lives in Asia, however, they never become "Asian" under federal standards, because they are not descended from the original peoples of Asia. By contrast, if a Filipino family moves to Argentina as soon as they adopt Hispanic culture they become both Asian and Hispanic (assuming they at some point move to the US).