Primary resource: [Hefny v. _ (1997) (citation needed, appears to have been dismissed by the U.S. District Court)]

Secondary sources:

Can a person simply choose to self-identify as "white" to satisfy the legal requirements for being recognized as "white" under both state and federal law?

Does state or federal law specifically not provide for a legal process to be "classified" or "re-classified" as "white" or "black or African American"?

What are the legal requirements in the United States for being recognized under federal law as "white" or a "white" person?

  • 1
    Which state or federal laws are you talking about being recognized under?
    – bdb484
    May 28, 2018 at 20:11
  • @bdb484 All state and federal laws which utilize any classification scheme where "race" is an applicable classification which is considered; whether that be relating to "civil rights"; "voting rights"; "education"; "health"; "employment", etc., et al. May 28, 2018 at 20:14
  • 1
    This is the problem with the question. Your asking for the criteria for being recognized as white "under federal law," but you're not telling us which law you want to be recognized as white under. I honestly can't think of a single law that would recognize anyone as white or black.
    – bdb484
    May 28, 2018 at 20:18
  • @bdb484 Any federal or state form which asks the question, or provides a checkbox relevant to "race". One example within the domain of education, would be a student or a teacher being asked what "race" they are when they attend a school which receives federal funding. To the root of the matter, before we get to a selection of a particular "race", we would have to ask what the legislative intent was when creating (directly, or via an administrative agency) the classification scheme in the first instance to determine what the specific differences were intended to be between "black" and "white" May 28, 2018 at 20:21
  • @bdb484 That is to say, if one cannot readily cite any federal law which specifically defines legal differences between persons either recognized as or "reported" as "white" or "black or African American" under state or federal laws, what is the purpose of the administrative regulations which purport to define a "white" and "black or African American" "class" or "race" in the first instance? A regulation that serves no clear legislative purpose and is ambiguous on its face is grounds for challenging the constitutionality of the regulation. The problem is the regulation itself. May 28, 2018 at 20:28

1 Answer 1


The classificational scheme "White; black or African American; American Indian and Alaska Native; Asian; and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander" was instituted on May 12, 1977 through Office of Management and Budget Directive 15, which articulates "standard classifications for record keeping, collection, and presentation of data on race and ethnicity in Federal program administrative reporting and statistical activities". In the case of Mostafa Hefny, his classification as white would be a consequence of being from North Africa (Egypt), and the fact that "white" is defined as "A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East". A possible point of contention is that he is not from North Africa: the directive does not say where North Africa (as opposed to unmodified Africa) is. Discussion was published in the Federal Register, August 28, 1995, about these standards, and to make a really long story short, there's a problem, and no solution. The October 30, 1997 decision states the current law. This is what you should consult for the current situation: a propos the case of Nubians, the conflict still remains regarding the definition of "white" as "A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa", and "black" as "person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa" (Nubians fall into both categories: a black racial group of Northern Africa).

In non-immigration cases, racial and ethnic data are based on self-reporting. There is no strict rule, but "self-identification is the preferred means of obtaining information about an individual's race and ethnicity" (not possible in some instances, such as birth and death records). The set of categories which the census makes available is somewhat changeable. They currently report that they comply with the 1997 standards, but this report indicates that they had intended to drop "some other race" for 2010, but did not because of a Congressional mandate.

The government does not "recognize" individuals racially, instead they "report" them in a particular manner, so that counts can be made for whatever purposes (usually Civil Rights Act compliance). The rules apply to new and revised records, and not to existing records. One would have to look at the record of Hefny's suit, but it is likely that lack of standing and failure to state a legal claim figured prominently in the dismissal, if the case was dismissed.

  • Have you been able to locate the legal definition of what a "black racial group" is and is not? Also, have you been able to locate the citation or case number (if not published) for the Hefny case? May 28, 2018 at 20:34
  • 2
    Nothing on the Hefny case. "Black racial group" is taken to be self-evident w.r.t. the statistics. There is no general "federal dictionary". Tamils, Papuans and Andamanese would probably count as "racially black", just not from Africa. Older laws stated in terms of blood quanta don't survive, and instead it's referred to the "the understanding of the common man".
    – user6726
    May 28, 2018 at 20:58
  • 2
    Some unrelated website cited a young white man or boy immigrating to the USA from South Africa, who then identified himself (correctly in my opinion) as African American - and got into trouble for it with school authorities. Of course he could have identified himself as "White" as well.
    – gnasher729
    May 28, 2018 at 22:38

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