The US Census, apparently, officially defines Ashkenazi Jews as white:

White – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

However, this definition is apparently disputed by mainstream news organizations; for example, in the Times of Israel article "Ashkenazi Jews are not white – Response to Haaretz article", it is written:

As late as 1987 the US legally defined Jews as non-white

According to the US, are Ashkenazi Jews defined as white or not?

  • 2
    I actually heard on NPR yesterday discussion about how, in an effort to keep the majority of the US listed as "white" based on the census, they started adding groups that had not been previously considered such, including people of Ashkenazi heritage. – Catija Mar 24 '17 at 18:35
  • I mentioned it because that seems like something that would be applicable to this site... If there's some sort of conspiracy to maximize the "whiteness" of the US by applying the "white" label to more groups, that should be something that is verifiable... – Catija Mar 24 '17 at 18:47
  • 1
    @ChrisW the official definition comes from the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) and the agencies like the census bureau follow the OMB definition whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/briefing-room/… – DavePhD Mar 24 '17 at 19:03
  • 1
    @Catija I checked the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census documents for my Jewish great-grandparents. In all cases, the records say in the race column "W" for white. In 1910, there is a separate column for place of birth where it says "Rus. Yiddish". In 1920 there are extra columns for place of birth and language, and it says "Russia", "Yiddish". And 1930 says place of birth "Russia", language "Jewish". But definitely they and their many Jewish neighbors were in all cases labeled as "W" for race. – DavePhD Mar 25 '17 at 10:48
  • 3
    This question is backward. Of course Ashkenazi jews are white - they are those jews who originate (broadly) from Europe excluding Spain/Portugal. Sephardic jews are those that originate from Spain/Portugal and spread to places such as North Africa, Current-day middle east and India. It's the Sephardim who could conceivably be considered "non-white". – Jamiec Apr 18 '17 at 12:19

The article is referring to "1987" due to a US Supreme Court decision Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb 481 U.S. 615 (1987)

What this decision actually says is:

We agree with petitioners, however, that the Court of Appeals erred in holding that Jews cannot state a §1982 claim against other white defendants. That view rested on the notion that because Jews today are not thought to be members of a separate race, they cannot make out a claim of racial discrimination within the meaning of §1982. That construction of the section we have today rejected in Saint Francis College v. Al-Khazraji, ante, p. 604. Our opinion in that case observed that definitions of race when §1982 was passed were not the same as they are today, ante, at 609-613, and concluded that the section was "intended to protect from discrimination identifiable classes of persons who are subjected to intentional discrimination solely because of their ancestry or ethnic characteristics." Ante, at 613. As Saint Francis makes clear, the question before us is not whether Jews are considered to be a separate race by today's standards, but whether, at the time §1982 was adopted, Jews constituted a group of people that Congress intended to protect. It is evident from the legislative history of the section reviewed in Saint Francis College, a review that we need not repeat here, that Jews and Arabs were among the peoples then considered [481 U.S. 615, 618] to be distinct races and hence within the protection of the statute. Jews are not foreclosed from stating a cause of action against other members of what today is considered to be part of the Caucasian race.

So the decision was not that Jews were non-white in 1987, it was that at the time the law in question was created, Jews were thought of as a separate race.

The law in question originated 9 April 1866, so they are saying in 1866 Jews were considered a separate race.

The decision cites to Saint Francis College v. Al-Khazraji which was decided the same day and says:

Encyclopedias of the 19th century also described race in terms of ethnic groups, which is a narrower concept of race than petitioners urge. Encyclopedia Americana in 1858, for example, referred to various races such as Finns, vol. 5, p. 123, gypsies, 6 id. at 123, Basques, 1 id. at 602, and Hebrews, 6 id. at 209. The 1863 version of the New American Cyclopaedia divided the Arabs into a number of subsidiary races, vol. 1, p. 739; represented the Hebrews as of the Semitic race, 9 id. at 27, and identified numerous other groups as constituting races, including Swedes, 15 id. at 216, Norwegians, 12 id. at 410, Germans, 8 id. at 200, Greeks, 8 id. at 438, Finns, 7 id. at 513, Italians, 9 id. at 644-645 (referring to mixture of different races), Spanish, 14 id. at 804, Mongolians, 11 id. at 651, Russians, 14 id. at 226, and the like. The Ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica also referred to Arabs, vol. 2, p. 245 (1878), Jews, 13 id. at 685 (1881), and other ethnic groups such as Germans, 10 id. at [p612] 473 (1879), Hungarians, 12 id. at 365 (1880), and Greeks, 11 id. at 83 (1880), as separate races.

These dictionary and encyclopedic sources are somewhat diverse, but it is clear that they do not support the claim that, for the purposes of § 1981, Arabs, Englishmen, Germans, and certain other ethnic groups are to be considered a single race.

So the Supreme court didn't mean that Jews were non-white even as of 1866, but instead that for the purpose of a particular law originating in 1866 there are many different races. Even Englishmen vs. Germans are different races for the purpose of this law.


  • Is "then" 1982? So the author was off by 5 years? Or what is "1982" referring to? – tim Mar 24 '17 at 18:25
  • 2
    @tim no "1982" is the section of the law, not the year. They mean 1866. I will add more. – DavePhD Mar 24 '17 at 18:26
  • @tim if you look at the original, you see that all references are originally to § 1982, but the section characters didn't make it into the answer for some reason. I would add these characters myself, but because there are only four of them I do not have sufficient reputation. – phoog Mar 25 '17 at 4:25
  • @phoog ok, I added – DavePhD Mar 25 '17 at 10:20

Racial categories are a shifting topic in the United States, in part through politics but also feedback from how people answer the US Census and studies by the Federal Interagency Working Group for Research on Race and Ethnicity (thanks to DavePhd for the link). Very long but good article about how race has changed in the US and how the US handles the changes.

The Office of Management of Budget is actually the agency in the federal government that defines racial categories. More. Actual list from OMB is part of the information the current White House administration took down during their transition and is still currently down. The OMB is under the purview of Executive Branch.

In turn, these are the categories the US Census Bureau uses on its census forms. The US Census Bureau gives the questionnaire to the US Congress for comment:

The law does not require congressional approval of the submissions, but as a practical matter, Congress could express its disapproval informally and urge the bureau to make changes, or it could pass legislation to require changes in topics or question wording...

As such, at this time:

White. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

The Census is used for determining many policy decisions throughout the United States. Because policies should be grounded in reality and should show an measurable result, the US Census is used to allocate resources to the targeted areas and to help the CBO, CAO, HUD, and USDA fulfill their directed duties. I am most familiar with HUD, CDBG, and USDA grants, and they all direct to use the OMB definitions or use similar language in their policies.

So from a executive, and legislative standpoint... yes, the US government legally includes Middle-Easterners, Arabs and North Africans in the white category.

Again race definitions is a fluid topic in the US, and a proposed change to break-out those who might see themselves as Middle-Easterners, Arabs and North Africans.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .