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U.S. Considers Asking Black Americans on Census if They Are Slave Descendants

Change would help quantify eligibility for reparations should the government agree to pay them

By Michelle Hackman and Paul Overberg, WSJ

March 30, 2023 11:33 am ET

The U.S. government is considering asking Black Americans on federal forms, including the census, whether their ancestors were enslaved.

In a proposed update to how the government tracks Americans’ race and ethnicity, the Biden administration is asking the public for input on how it might go about differentiating Black people who are descendants of slaves in America from those whose families arrived more recently as immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean or other countries.

The idea of adding more-detailed categories to the census has been gaining currency among some Black Americans, who say society too often conflates their experiences with those of Black immigrants, who only started moving to the U.S. in meaningful numbers in the past few decades. Roughly one in five Black people in the U.S. are immigrants or their children, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Supporters of the change say one reason they are pushing it is to quantify who would be eligible to receive reparations for slavery should the government ever agree to pay them. An effort to make such payments has stalled in Congress, though local efforts have gained some steam. In San Francisco, the city’s Board of Supervisors is debating a proposal to award eligible Black residents up to $5 million per person in restitution, one of a menu of preliminary recommendations that include free homes, guaranteed incomes and debt and tax relief.

Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and by researchers at Duke University, among others, shows that Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved tend to lag behind in wealth and education compared with more-recent arrivals.

“America sees Black people as a monolith,” said Chad Brown, spokesperson for the National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants, which backs reparations and is pushing for the change. “When you say all Black people are the same, you are ignoring differences in culture, ancestry, economics, and you are doing a disservice to everyone lumped into that group.”

The potential change is one of several the Biden administration is thinking about adopting to redefine how race and ethnicity are measured on government forms, which typically dictate how other institutions collect demographic data.

The Biden administration has proposed combining existing race and ethnicity questions so that “Hispanic or Latino” would no longer be a separate question, but instead would be one of several choices on the race question. It has also proposed creating a new race question category for Americans of Middle Eastern or North African heritage. Unlike for those changes, the administration didn’t include a formal recommendation about identifying Black Americans’ ancestry, but rather solicited comments from the public on how it might do so.

Supporters of the change want an additional question should a respondent select “Black or African American” on a government form where they could indicate that their ancestors were slaves. In its proposed rule on those broader changes, the administration asked whether the term “American Descendants of Slavery” or “American Freedmen” would be the best terms to describe the group. Some have suggested the term “Foundational Black Americans.”

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which is spearheading the race-category overhaul, declined to comment on the idea.

Last year California became the first state to require that Black state employees be allowed to specify that they are “African American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States” on employment forms. The law, which takes effect next year, would allow self-identification by Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean and require that statistics be published each year.

A working group in California, which is drafting a reparations proposal for the State Legislature to study, is looking at partnerships with genealogy websites including 23andMe and to potentially help verify a Black person’s lineage should she or he apply to receive reparations. The census and other federal surveys rely on respondents’ self-reported descriptions and typically don’t ask for verification.

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, said subdividing the Black population in the U.S. is a harmful step that would further divide American society. “Government shouldn’t be in the business of separating people by immutable characteristics,” he said.

Mr. Gonzalez, who has written extensively on issues of race, said he favors reinstating a question removed after the 1970 census that asked respondents to list where their parents were born. Using that information, he said, researchers could group categories as they wish.

If the slavery-related change were adopted, it wouldn’t only be used on the census but also on forms that Americans encounter on a more routine basis, such as applications for federal student loans and home loans.

So far, thousands of members of the public have left comments on the proposed race-category overhaul. Michael Hicks, an administrator at a historically Black college in Louisville, Ky., recently logged into a government website and typed up a 400-word comment in favor of the change for Black respondents.

Mr. Hicks said he became interested in supporting politicians who more directly represent the interests of slavery descendants after becoming disillusioned with former President Barack Obama. During Mr. Obama’s presidency, Mr. Hicks said, many Black Americans felt left behind as their neighborhoods gentrified and their incomes couldn’t keep pace. According to surveys conducted by the Federal Reserve, Black families’ wealth is less than 15% of white families’ wealth, and lower than any racial group.

“His election and his presidency was landmark, but it didn’t help most Black Americans except symbolically,” he said. Mr. Hicks and other supporters of this designation have pointed out that Mr. Obama isn’t descended from slaves—his father was an international student from Kenya and his mother white.

“If America wants resources to go to the populations that need them the most, we must accurately recognize who is affected and why,” Mr. Hicks wrote in his comments in support of the new category.

The government’s proposal comes in the midst of a broader debate among Black Americans over how much experience the descendants of people enslaved in the U.S. share with those whose families came to America voluntarily. Many Black immigrants say they face much of the same discrimination, particularly at the hands of police. Black people from Africa were also brought to the Caribbean and Latin America as slaves. But many of those whose ancestors were enslaved in the U.S. believe they should be considered a distinct ethnic group.

That belief is based at least in part on limited data showing that Black immigrants and their children on average find higher-paying jobs and accumulate more wealth than people whose families have lived here for decades or centuries. Several studies suggest that Black immigrants and their children are overrepresented on elite college campuses—particularly if they emigrated from the African continent.

Because the Black population isn’t systematically categorized along such lines, research on these outcomes is limited.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know, and it would be easier to start knowing those things if we could better document the Black population,” said Camille Z. Charles, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania who has researched Black student populations at elite schools and supports more-detailed data collection.

Write to Michelle Hackman at and Paul Overberg at

Copyright ©2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8




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