You’re filling out a form when you come across the ethnicity and race section. You may wonder, why do they have “Mexican, Latino or other Spanish” in the ethnicity selection, but no other ethnicities? Why is it that white and black are the only “colors,” and the rest seem to be countries/regions? Why is someone from the Middle East considered white? Why is Trump wanting to establish Jewish as a race/ethnicity? Why do we capture race but not religion? If we really think grouping people based on physical characteristics is useful, why sugarcoat it?
Number of Free People
It’s clear we’ve had our share of failures if we just look at the history of the census. In the US, the census seems to have officially started in 1790. We collected the numbers of “Free White Men,” “Free White Women,” “Free Other,” and “Slaves” back in the day. In Virginia for example, they registered 292,627 slaves but 227,071 free white males; clearly a significant population of free to slave ratio. In defense of our ‘forefathers,’ it makes sense that if the population was made up of primarily one race and a bunch of slaves, we wouldn’t need any other distinction. There wasn’t really a need to get numbers of “black” or other ethnicities, just slaves or “other free.”
It didn’t take too long to start to add race categories, however. By 1820, “free colored person” made the list, along with “foreigners not naturalized” and a mention of “Indians not taxed” as well. In fact, they added a third color to the list by 1850: black, white, or “mulatto” for mixed. By 1890, Chinese and Indians got their own letters, finally. By 1890, we really started to get diverse and wanted to know who was “quadroon” or a quarter black. While that did show progress, by 1930, we went back to calling anyone black, no matter how much percentage, a “negro.” Similarly, mixed “white and Indian” were to be called “Indian”. At this time, we also decided to include “Mexican” as a race (not ethnicity).
What’s the Point?
Ok, enough of the crazy history of the US census. As we may have gathered, the point of the census isn’t just to have fun with race numbers. It was used to determine how to create laws and policies. It’s all about ‘who’ makes up the country; it’s about collecting data. The more data we collect, the more ability we have to tailor our policies and budgets to continue to “improve things as a whole.”
The natural downside is that, similar to the “quadroons” out there, the question of whether our “best interests” are at heart is always a fear. With the new executive order for Jews, is it possible that the US Census will have something added to it this year “race/ethnicity-wise”? And what would be the point? We always assume the worst, and there’s no telling what the various statistics are being used for.
Clearly, there are various budgets and social programs making use of these racial and ethnic statistics. But is that a good thing? And what if the ambiguity of race is causing big mistakes?
Ambiguity of Race
The most recent 2010 census went into detail on various Asian groups, for example, but if we think about it, the census has divided the US into six big groups: Latino-ish, Black-ish, White-ish, Asian-ish, Native-American-ish and Islander-ish. Now how are those metrics really helping? And isn’t it a gross difference between a “white” Romanian American that has been here for generations and a “white” Romanian American that came over recently? What about a “black” African American here for generations versus a “black” Ghanaian American that came over recently?
Most would have to agree, they represent very different societal factors. The Romanian family who has been here for generations may barely even consider themselves Romanian; their families have possibly all been mixed with various other races and ethnicities by now. Whereas a Romanian just flying in may have a very different outlook. Why wouldn’t the census bureau want to capture those details? Instead, we’re stuck with two colors (white/black) and everything else.
Ethnicity and Politics
What better way to muddy the water than with a block on “ethnicity” that only singles out “Latino, Mexican and Spanish”? Firstly, ethnicity is a similarly ambiguous social term like race except, instead of focusing on physical characteristics, it focuses on everything else like language, nationality, and culture. (Ask a sociologist what culture actually means.) What’s the point of having an “ethnicity” but only targeting Latino-ish folks? Can’t we call “African American” an ethnicity more so than a race? Especially considering “Black American” can be significantly different culturally from a “Black Nigerian”?
When we really think about it, all of it just makes it look like a way to get numbers about key political topics. Need a reason to fight for or against immigration and a border wall? Show the growth of “Mexicans” over the last 10 years, adjusted to account for children. The way it is divided today is so unreasonable that the only way it makes sense is to assume it is for political agendas that are believed to be the “best way” to help the US.
Slanted Eye and Nose Width Scale?
Some believe that there could be important biological differences between “white” and “black,” so therefore it matters. Or that “classification” by “physical characteristics” can reasonably be done. This may have been the case prior to airplanes, but the world is becoming a vast melting pot, especially in the US.
Since it’s so vastly complex, we could allow everyone to select a color pallete for their skin color. Then have a round to slanted eye scale; a small to big lip scale, and a skinny to wide nose scale. Then we could add the rest of the characteristics, like hair color and eye color. That sounds ridiculous, right? Why do we feel the need to get statistics on “physical characteristics” but sugarcoat it? Back when we were trying to figure out “who is free” versus “who is not,” it kind of made sense. But now, what? Is it for college entrance perks? For minority assistance budgets? Jobs and affirmative action?
The bottom line is that classifying someone based on physical characteristics is getting harder and harder except for the purest of racial groups. There may be differences, but technology is showing more and more increasingly that if we want to truly identify the differences, we need the genes. Just looking can do but only so much. Of course, most of us would take a hard pass on donating genes for the census.
Most Reasonable Option
Wouldn’t it be reasonable to take the race/ethnicity off altogether? Instead, we could use something to denote where we came from. Something like first, second, third, or more generation American and original country of origin. Then primary and secondary language. That’s it. No more tracking quadroons and other racial mixtures. No more switching between colors (white/black) and ethnicity as if it matters.
Then guess what that would mean? Both the well “intentioned” social programs and any discriminatory groups would start focusing on other data collection efforts regarding economics, generational immigration, and education – not race. The day we do that is the day we move forward “socially” as a country instead of being held back deliberating over “groups based on physical characteristics.”