In this question, it came up that the U.S. census, in its community survey, asked people to tell not only about their ethnicity ("race"), but also about the nationality of their ancestors. The question asked for a voluntary identification, and multiple nationalities could be listed (question 13):

What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin?
(For example: Italian, Jamaican, African Am., Cambodian, Cape Verdean, Norwegian, Dominican, French Canadian, Haitian, Korean, Lebanese, Polish, Nigerian, Mexican, Taiwanese, Ukrainian, and so on.)

This was beside much more objective questions, like "were you born in the U.S.?", "if not, which country were you born in?". Another typical question that would be asked in my country (Germany) would be "which country were your parents born in?". The purpose of this line of questioning in Europe would be as a tool for what is called integration strategies. It stems from the notion that these people with a migration background are either not fully self-identifying with the country they live in or are not perceived/alleged to be a full part of that country - and this is seen as a call for political action.

The question of "ancestry" in contrast seems to refer to a migration that might lie far in the past - even centuries or tens of generations back, if the askee wants to identify him/herself with that origin. It makes me wonder who is interested in that sort of self-identification, and for what purpose? Objectively, there could be dozens of nations one's ancestors might have come from. So I suspect most people would only name some of them, leaving others out of consideration. (because they were women, slaves, outsiders, ...?)

What sort of political discussion would this information be used in? As the census bureau says,

the survey generates data that help determine how more than $675 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year.

Which decision would depend on which ancestry had a majority/minority in a certain community?


It is a peculiarity of the question recommendation system that, while writing a question, other comparable questions come up than those listed after the question is actually published. So only now I find that What exactly is "National Origin” with respect to US anti-discrimination laws? gives a possible answer to my question.

The term "national origin" comes up in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a prohibition to discriminate against by employers. The term seems to be used synonymously to "ancestry". Answers to the question point out that the term is lacking a good legal definition, but I can see that if someone self-identifies as having a certain ancestry and finds out that economic or other statistical data about others that do the same are less favourable than the national average, this would be a starting point for a discussion about discrimination.

  • There's a fair amount of overlap with politics.stackexchange.com/questions/70354/…, though I don't think this is necessarily a duplicate. One relevant takeaway from that discussion is that questions must be written so that their meaning is reasonably self-evident and so that they don't offend people, because they're asking about potentially sensitive subjects. This means that some information gathered may be irrelevant, and some important data will not be gathered.
    – Juhasz
    May 25, 2022 at 18:29
  • @Juhasz The category "ethnicity" is separate from "ancestry" in that survey.
    – ccprog
    May 25, 2022 at 18:37
  • This would be improved by including the phrasing of the question you're asking about. May 25, 2022 at 18:50

1 Answer 1


The main way that the ancestry question is used in the census in a practical matter is to guide redistricting decision making by providing probabilistic estimates of how people will vote based upon their self-identified ancestry.

It is also useful for genealogical researchers when census results become public as the did, for example, in the recent unblinding of full census data from 1950.

From a political perspective, one of the most interesting and useful options is the option to self-identify as "American" in ethnicity, a choice made mostly by whites with remote Scot-Irish or English ancestral heritage in the South and in rural America, as more or less a political statement protesting identify politics, which is a generally conservative political marker.

Historically, it was heavily used to identify people of Irish and Italian ancestry in urban neighborhoods when these ethnicities were a result of more recent immigration and suggested a likely support for Democratic political machines. But, while the question has remained, it has grown less salient as WASP v. Southern European Catholic cultural divide faded in a broader conception of an identity as a white American. It remains more salient, however, for recent immigrants such as Russians, and for subgroups of Asian-Americans and subgroups of Hispanics (e.g. Cubans v. Mexican-Americans who behave politically very differently).

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