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As an example, let's say someone with 1/16 of African American heritage applies for a minority scholarship and claims themselves as African American. Would they be rejected, all other factors being equal? If so, do universities generally publish a guideline of what constitutes a particular race in the context of scholarship applications or college admissions?

Note that this question is of practical value as there are presumably millions of people of mixed heritage living in the US at the moment.

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    Such things are usually done entirely by self-identification, since the prospect of requiring someone to prove their race/ethnicity would be seen as extremely distasteful. Aug 12, 2018 at 20:56
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    @JonathanReez, what you look like has little bearing. First Peoples can and do, in fact, often look Irish, or African, or Hispanic, or... In fact, in the sad history of US race relations 1/16 African heritage was just, simply, Black. People could often "pass" as white, but if it were revealed that a great granddaddy was black it would be a death sentence in many places. That is the underlying reason for such rules. But don't claim what you don't believe yourself to be just for a scholarship. Be yourself.
    – Buffy
    Aug 12, 2018 at 21:44
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    The US is not as rule-based legalistic as Northern Europe. Aug 12, 2018 at 22:10
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    The comment of @NateEldredge above is correct. We don't try. My own ancestry shows some surprising things. And, I think most DNA tests are only approximately accurate. We don't try to define it, but sometimes we argue about it - especially if someone seems to be intentionally representing themselves as someone they aren't. But even in some of those cases, family tradition has given them a picture of "who they are". Generally we respect that personal sense.
    – Buffy
    Aug 12, 2018 at 22:10
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    Someone who looked like me would be questioned on it if I tried. I might have to tell a bit of my family history. But that is a rare occurrence (it has happened) as few would claim membership in a community that is still discriminated against. Most people only claim to be part of a community if they have "lived the life" of that community. An African immigrant to the US now probably wouldn't think of herself as African American (maybe Kenyan), but her kids might. It would depend on their self perceived life experience. If I lie and am discovered I'll be laughed off campus.
    – Buffy
    Aug 12, 2018 at 22:22

2 Answers 2

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The short answer is no. There is no definition. Our history is very complicated around race and after several hundred years we are still grappling with it. There may be a bit of abuse of the system, but not enough to cause people to try to start defining one another with rigid rules that we would not accept in any case. We have enough problems without that.

In places where such definitions have been used, some of them lead to atrocities. There are current examples in the world now, actually.

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    It's worth noting that while this may be the case for most ethnic/racial minorities in the US, it is not universally true. Native Americans, for instance, are often asked to establish their ancestry and prove they are registered/enrolled with a federally-recognized tribe.
    – Sparksbet
    Aug 12, 2018 at 23:10
  • @Sparksbet, is that true in general or just so that the tribe recognizes them? Some tribes generate some wealth that is distributed to members. Some tribes in the US are treated as sovereign due to old treaties. Most were once at war with the US, though not all.
    – Buffy
    Aug 12, 2018 at 23:19
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    I don't know the particulars, as I have no native ancestry myself. However, I recall peers in college reporting they tried to apply for scholarships based on native ancestry and were unable to because they were not registered with any tribe (due to the ancestry being too remote or on the wrong side of the family, etc.)
    – Sparksbet
    Aug 12, 2018 at 23:21
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    In Canada at least, "Indian Status" was defined along patrilineal lines, and a indigenous woman who would marry a non-indigenous man could also lose her status. This was designed with the stated intention of eliminating the identity of indigenous peoples in NA. My understanding was that similar rules were put in place in the US. So with that particular ethnicity it's a bit more complicated than self-identification and some amount of genealogy is necessary for the government to recognize someone as "Indian". Maybe the universities don't require proof, but I am not native so I can't say for sure Aug 13, 2018 at 3:41
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    @CuriousFindings, yes, such rules are pernicious. Most of the First Peoples formed matrilineal societies. In these societies you clan comes from your mother. For a male, the clan knowledge was given to you by your mother's brothers, not your father, who was required by custom to be in a different clan altogether.
    – Buffy
    Aug 13, 2018 at 13:06
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As a general rule, American universities are required to follow reporting guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (part of the US Department of Labor), asking for demographic data about students, employees, and applicants, as partial documentation of their adherence to various titles of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and several other criteria.

The Department of Education's guidelines include the following definitions (emphasis in the original):

  • An Asian person has origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.
  • An American Indian or Alaska Native person has origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
  • A Black or African American person has origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Terms such as "Haitian" or "Negro" can be used in addition to "Black or African American."
  • A Hispanic or Latino person is of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race. The term "Spanish origin" can be used in addition to "Hispanic or Latino."
  • A Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander person has origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.
  • A White person has origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

Similar definitions are included in EEOC sample self-reporting forms. Some universities offer mild revisions of the federal definitions (for example, removing the optional label "Negro" and replacing "American Indian" with "Native American").

The Department of Education standards allow, and the EEOC standards require, asking each applicant (for education or employment) to self-identify their own race(s) and ethnicity(ies). In particular, the guidelines explicitly allow each respondent to specify multiple races and/or ethnic groups. The definitions are guidelines for the applicants to help them self-identify.

So, to answer the original question: If an applicant self-identifies as African American, they are African American for purposes of statistical reporting to the federal government.

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    As stated elsewhere, our history is very complex. I'll make two notes. One is that reporting is optional by an individual. You can just decline to answer the question. Universities report what data they get and don't make assumptions about those not reporting. The other point is that some Native peoples (First Peoples) reject the terms American Indian and Native American as offensive since they contain the term American, which is a term created by invaders who caused the deaths of about 90% of the original population. (The 90% figure is scientifically supported.)
    – Buffy
    Aug 13, 2018 at 19:15
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    It isn't the list that is "complex". It is the history. Yes, it is haphazard. It is also "self reported" and only if you wish to report. It isn't something imposed on you. The purpose of the reporting to the government is that some funds may be available to schools in some situations if they educate a large fraction of "historically underrepresented" people. We've had a racism problem here since the first settlers landed on the shores. The money is a feeble and inadequate attempt to respond to it. BTW, a Brazilian is unlikely to self report Hispanic, and a Jamaican could report Black.
    – Buffy
    Aug 13, 2018 at 19:45
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    @NajibIdrissi Yes, unfortunately I do find it normal, despite its obvious stupidity. It's probably best to think of this as a list of irrelevant labels Americans have used to discriminate, rather than "races" in any scientific sense. People do discriminate against prospective students and employees (and tenants and...) because they are "black" and/or "Hispanic" and/or "Asian"; describing exactly what the discrimination criteria are reveals their stupidity, but does not make that discrimination any less real. (1/2)
    – JeffE
    Aug 13, 2018 at 19:58
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    @NajibIdrissi (2/2) A hundred years ago, this list would have included "Irish" and "Polish" as separate categories. In a few decades, perhaps the list will grow to include "Arab-American", or the government will start asking people to self-report religion to track anti-Muslim discrimination.
    – JeffE
    Aug 13, 2018 at 20:09
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    @NajibIdrissi That's certainly not my intention! As Mark suggests, I'm suggesting that the government might start tracking anti-Arab discrimination (by adding "Arab" to the list of races and/or ethnicities), or that they might start tracking anti-Muslim discrimination (by asking about religion).
    – JeffE
    Aug 14, 2018 at 20:22

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