The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Bogus Controversy Over Nikki Haley Checking "White" on Her Voter Registration Card Resurfaces


Politico notes that on the one hand, Haley has been leaning into her identity as a Punjabi woman of Sikh heritage (though she is a practicing Christian). On the other hand, "In 2001 she reportedly listed her race as "white" on her voter registration card, three years before she entered into elective politics. (Haley has never publicly addressed her reasons for doing so.)"

Politico is suggesting, as others have, that by checking white she was distancing herself from her Asian Indian heritage.

One simply cannot surmise that from the box she checked. When Haley registered to vote, the options for race were "White, Black/African American, Asian, Hispanic, Other." In one the many anomalies of America's messed up racial classification system, people are asked to self-identify, but are not given the official definitions of who is included in each group.

When Haley was born in 1972, federal agencies generally classified Indian Americans as white. When the US government proposed uniform rules for racial definitions, Indians were deemed white. At the last minute, a small Indian American group persuaded the powers-that-be to put Indians into the "Asian American and Pacific Islander" classification. Even then, some states and federal agencies excluded Indians from the Asian classification for another decade or two.

But all that said, shouldn't Haley have known to put down "Asian," unless she was trying to obscure her identity? Well, even most law professors could not tell you the precise definitions of the different classifications. Iranian, Afghans, and Armenians are "white." Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos are "Asian." If you knew that much, but don't know Indians' official status, would it be clear to you that you should check "Asian" and not, like other Caucasians from the Asian continent, white? Put slightly differently, the "Asian American" classification grew out of classifications that either identified people by East Asian ethnicity (Chinese, Japanese, etc) or served as a replacement for what used to be called "Oriental." Indian Americans fit into neither group.

Even today, 45 years after the official classifications came into being, most "Asian Americans" do not identify with that category, many Americans don't think of South Asians as "Asian Americans," and South Asians are substantially less likely to identify with the "Asian" label than are East Asians.

In short, if there had been a "South Asian" or "Indian" box to check, and Haley had chosen to check white, one could fairly surmise she was distancing herself from her heritage. But given the arbitrary choices of "white" or "Asian" with no definitions, the average person of Indian descent could have easily thought that an Indian, especially one of relatively fair complexion, came under the "white" classification.

PS If you find discussion of such matters interesting, be sure to pick up my book, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classifications in America.