The fake controversy surrounding Nikki Haley marking “white” on her voter card is resurfacing

Politico notes that on the one hand, Haley has relied on her identity as a Punjabi woman of Sikh descent (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 electoral politics. (Haley has never publicly discussed her reasons for doing so.)”

Politico suggests, as others have, that she distanced herself from her Asian-Indian heritage by wearing white.

It just can’t be guessed from the box she ticked. When Haley registered to vote, the options for race were “White, Black/African American, Asian, Hispanic, Other.” In one of the many anomalies of America’s muddled system of racial classification, people are asked to identify themselves but given no official definitions of who is included in which group.

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

But all that being said, shouldn’t Haley have known to put “Asian” unless she was trying to hide her identity? Well, even most law professors can’t tell you the precise definitions of the various classifications. Iranians, Afghans and Armenians are “white”. Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos are “Asians”. If you knew that much, but did not know the official status of Indians, would it be clear to you that you should mark “Asian” and not, like other Caucasians from the Asian continent, Caucasian? Put a little differently, the “Asian American” classification grew out of classifications that either identified people by East Asian ethnicity (Chinese, Japanese, etc.) or served as a substitute for what used to be called “Orientals.” Indians do not belong to any group.

Even today, 45 years after the official classifications, most “Asian Americans” do not identify with that category, many Americans do not think of South Asians as “Asian Americans,” and South Asians are significantly less likely to identify with the ” Asian” than are East Asians.

In short, if there was a “South Asian” or “Indian” box to label, and Haley chose to label white, one could conclude that she is distancing herself from her heritage. But given the arbitrary choices of “Caucasian” or “Asian” without any definitions, the average person of Indian descent could easily think that an Indian, especially one with relatively light skin, falls under the “White” classification.

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

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