Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Census and Race

Okay. The census is here, and one of the more complex items on this deceptively simple form appears above:  Question #8 on race. As I've discussed before on this blog, the concept of race is a slippery one. Here's the basic definition.

race. In its biological sense, the term refers to a category of people distinguished by such inherited physical characteristics as skin color, certain facial features, and quality or form of hair. Race may also signify the prejudices, beliefs, and policies called racial or racist. Behind the term is an extremely vague, misleading, and intrac­table folk concept about how people are to be categorized.
I heard an NPR story the other night in which people whose ancestors came from the Middle East, who might be described as Arab-American, wondered where they fit in the categories listed on the census form. The general idea I got from the story was, "If we have to take the abuse, shouldn't our category at least be listed on the form?" Of course, anyone has the option of writing in "some other race." But I have a lot of questions about this item.
     First, is race really even the right term for the categories listed there? Aren't they more like nationalities or ethnicities than races (even if people in each of those categories do or may share some physical characteristics)? If your category is not listed, does it mean you're automatically white? I know some people who don't think of Jews as white. 
     Of course, anthropologists and other observers will point out that the categories listed for the race question have changed over the years the census has been taken. And if races are strictly defined by biology, how can the categories change? Oh, I know, it's all very complicated, and I probably haven't even asked the right questions in the right ways. I do like how post-modern the census people sound though, the way they frame the question by asking what person number 1 "considers [italics mine] himself/herself to be." What do you consider yourself to be?

11 comments:

ettawor said...

I know this blog focuses on issues related to ethnicity, but what about gender? How does a transgendered person respond if that person has not legally been declared of the opposite gender.
Recently in Australia a person was declare without gender.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/18/norrie-may-welby-the-worl_n_502851.html

Susan Messer said...

Believe me, I've thought about it (writing something on the topic of gender) several times--especially because of an issue that's been circulating at our local elementary school. But every time I decided that would be my Wednesday topic, something else came up to crowd it out. These gender issues . . . though. In some sense, they're even more difficult than the race/ethnicity ones, and more challenging. Most of us were raised to believe that if nothing else, we knew whether to check male or female on a form. That this at least was a clear distinction we could "depend on." Consciousness about such issues has been raised considerably in the past decade or so--though there's still a long way to go. Guess the Census folks haven't gotten up to speed on that one either.

rasirds@cox.net said...

Today's blog says more about explaining "race" than one might think.

Defining "race' is obviously not a black and white (no pun intended). Instead we truly are who we think we are. Terminology used on the current census form is outdated. Instead we should be able to define ourselves. While this idea may present problems for the government, it's time to acknowledge that we are all people. Defining "race" is divisive.
As a society, we need to do better than that.

Susan Messer said...

Good point, Rasirds. I'm sure they (the govt) have a reason for asking about and counting such categories, but ultimately I'm not sure it matters. I know there's lots of talk and many projections about when whites will no longer be the majority, and that is an interesting concept (and probably a threatening one for many). And it's interesting to have a snapshot of the US population. But still . . . maybe what "they" are really interested in is ancestral roots?

rasirds.cox.net said...

If you Google "Five Reasons For Census, the reasons stated and the bulleted reasons after them have no relevance to race.

rasirds@cox.net said...

I want to ad to my original comment.
The present census form reminds me of office jobs I've held where reasons for doing things were because "that's the way we always did them." Not good enough. The present census allows the government to discriminate. The government does not need to know what color I am to allot money for me to uses public services. My taxes already pay for that privilege. This method of population counting keeps race in the forefront and continues to suggest negativity to the minorities. The government has a number of ways to find information it wants or needs without wrongly - according to the reasons for census - asking racial information to count heads.

Susan Messer said...

thanks for thinking so deeply about this topic. I'd like to hear someone explain the why behind the race question. Perhaps there is no good reason at all.

rasirds@cox.net said...

Right on! There is no reason for the race question. There is not reason for a gender question. The reasons behind these questions are either ignorant or an excuse for the government to invade privacy. Again, I suggest Googling "Reasons for Census."

Jim Poznak said...

At least the census form allows a choice of "one or more". If one considers oneself as a child of the world, why not check all the boxes, or check "other" and indicate something such as "all of the above" "universal", or "none of the above".

If we are all related by 6 degrees of separation (or thereabouts), what's the difference?

Finally, I agree with the other commentators, why does the government need to keep tabs on race? Very much pre-modern thinking even if phrased in a post-modern manner.

Susan Messer said...

Agreed. Probably by 2020, the race question will have been dropped.

2020.

Now that would be the time for all kinds of breakthroughs in perspective and understandings.

ettawor said...

Yes. Maybe by then our vision will have cleared.