Posted on April 3, 2023

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

Michelle Hackman and Paul Overberg, Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2023

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.


“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.


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.”


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.


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.