Thursday, August 16, 2012

Groping to name who we are

The Census Bureau is struggling to find survey terms that enable people to identify themselves according to "race" and "ethnicity" in the words that they themselves use. As the demographic mix of the country changes, the terms in which people understand their own identities also change. The result will undoubtedly seem jarring to some people, while to others it will simply state the obvious. According to Hope Yen:

The recommendations released Wednesday stem from new government research on the best ways to count the nation's demographic groups. …The research is based on an experiment conducted during the 2010 census in which nearly 500,000 households were given forms with the race and ethnicity questions worded differently. The findings show that many people who filled out the traditional form did not feel they fit within the five government-defined categories of race: white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native; when questions were altered to address this concern, response rates and accuracy improved notably.

For instance, because Hispanic is currently defined as an ethnicity and not a race, some 18 million Latinos – or roughly 37 percent – used the "some other race" category on their census forms to establish a Hispanic racial identity. Under one proposed change to the census forms, a new question would simply ask a person's race or origin, allowing them to check a single box next to choices including black, white, or Hispanic.

The other changes would drop use of "Negro," leaving a choice of "black" or African-American, as well as add write-in categories that would allow Middle Easterners and Arabs to specifically identify themselves.

I'm fascinated that many Latinos, just at the moment when they are making their communities felt within the national polity, apparently want to label themselves a "race." Historically in the United States, where "white" and "black" defined who was on top and who was held down, getting out of a race check box and assimilating as a kind of "white" was part of coming into full citizenship. But current Census research apparently finds that Hispanics or Latinos want to be called a "race."

Other interesting findings about our racial understandings turned up in this Census research:
  • "Removing the term 'Negro' from the census form did not hurt the response rates of African-Americans. While some people in 2000 indicated that the term still had relevance to them, this number has steadily declined since then."
  • "Under the proposed changes, the number of people who reported multiple races increased significantly. The multiracial population is currently one of the nation's fastest growing demographic groups."
  • "When provided write-in lines, as much as 50 percent of people who checked their race as 'white' wrote in an ethnicity such as Italian, Polish, Arab, Iranian or Middle Eastern. More than 76 percent of black respondents also wrote in an ethnicity, such as Jamaican, Haitian or Ethiopian."
We care a great deal about racial categories, though we may not be entirely sure what we mean by them -- about whether we experience them as islands of solidarity, as cultural comfort zones, or as elements in a national mosaic. I'm most fascinated by the general insistence people are showing on naming their own race. As Cornel West preached, race matters.
Census categories used to describe "race" have been changed in every ten year version of the survey. There's a fascinating history of the evolving history of racial categories in this Wikipedia article. One of the consequences of changing racial definitions is that is hard to compare population numbers complied under different definitions.
What John Holbro at Crooked Timber pointed out may hold another clue to our emerging national identities:

… here’s my one thought, after the Ryan nomination. There are no WASPS on either ticket, either for President or VP. Also, there are no WASPS on the Supreme Court. Also, the Speaker of the House is a Catholic and the Senate Majority Leader is a Mormon. It’s a political commonplace that it’s pretty damn crazy that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama got elected President. But suppose you went back in time – set the Wayback Machine for ‘Best and the Brightest’ – so you could listen to all the botheration about Kennedy running for President. Suppose you could just interject: ‘dudes, dudes, in just 50 years, a Mormon and a Black man will be duking it out for President, and that’ll be a big deal, granted. But there will be no WASPS whatsoever at the absolute top of the political system, and people won’t even notice. Get over it.’

When change is accomplished, it ceases to be notable.

1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

The Hispanic questions on the census this time were something of a mess. I believe there was a question asking if you were "Hispanic" or not, and then a separate question asking you what your race might be with no option for "Hispanic." As one of the census enumerators, I can vouch that it was totally confusing for everyone.

As I told people, check the "other" box, and I'll put down whatever you want to be identified as, whether it's "Salvadoran," "mixed" or "honkie."

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