Race and the U.S. Census: The Complexities of Race and Ethnicity

The local public radio station in my town, WNYC, has been doing a fine job of reporting on the census. The Brian Lehrer Show’s “Census Project” is a terrific resource, especially the piece on visual displays of census data and the five myths about the census.

In keeping with our series on “Race and the U.S. Census,” I thought I’d share this episode on the complexities of race and ethnicity featuring Angelo Falcón, chair of the Census Advisory Committee on the Hispanic Population, and Jeff Yang, the “Asian Pop” columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and a consumer strategist for Iconoculture, discuss questions 8 and 9 on the U.S.:

The comments (currently 78) are interesting to read as well. This person, “Sara from New York,” writes:

“I was very confused by the race question. I am Mexican American but I’m not sure what to check on the Race category? I am not white. I am of native Mexican/ Mayan decent- Does that count as Native American?? Should I write in Native Mexican??”

And, this very thoughtful comment from “Alejandro Gutierrez from Brooklyn”:

I challenge Angelo Falcón to include on the Census’ Committee on Hispanic Affairs anthropologists who are knowledgeable about indigenous issues from Latin America as it appears that his Boricua-centric social science approach to race-identity metrics seriously reflects a lack of understanding of this population. Here I highlight two issues which underscore this:

1) The Spanish translation of the bilingual Census questionnaire is so poorly translated on the race question that it will create large non-responses by indigenous populations from Guatemala, Mexico and Ecuador. The question is posed as tribal, when that concept is foreign south of the border where the terms “Indigenous populations”, “Indigenous peoples” or “Original Peoples” are more commonly used. In addition, the word “Indian” in English is literally and inappropriately translated as “india”.

2) By and large, indigenous peoples from Latin American self-identify as “indigenous”, not as Hispanics, Latinos, Ladinos, etc. Furthermore, his referencing “assimilation” as a predominant process of incorporation into US society reflects an outmoded understanding of more complex cultural processes at work. Assimilation assumes a linear process of abandonment of original cultural values, outlooks, beliefs, language, identities in favor of the dominant culture in the destination country. Clearly, the issue of indigenous identity can better be understood in the context of acculturation, a more nuanced process of cultural give-and-take than Mr. Falcon acknowledges.

The discussion between Angelo Falcón and Jeff Yang, and the dozens of comments from a diverse range of New Yorkers illustrate, trying to measure race and ethnicity in the U.S. is a very complicated task.

Race and the U.S. Census: Defining Whiteness

Over time – from the first census in 1790 to the 2010 census today – the number of categories has grown and the racial designations have changed, all except for one = “white.”  While the category “white” has remained a constant on census forms, the meaning of whiteness – and who is, and is not, included in the category “white” has changed a great deal. In this fascinating interview (7:39) from The Takeaway, scholar Nell Irvin Painter the changing definition of whiteness and the U.S. census:

She’s discussing her new book, The History of White People. One of the points that she makes is this:

“Until the 1960’s, there were two racial dialogues going on the United States. One was more or less Southern, and that was black-white. The other had to do with various kinds of white people.”

The audio piece above includes an audio recording of NY-Governor Al Smith talking about “every race in the world” in which he lists a number of groups that we would now regard as white.

We see this kind of changing definition of whiteness taking shape in the 2010 census as well. There is a active movement among Arab Americans to resist being included in the category “white” in the current census. The “Yalla! Count” campaign, whose slogan “Check it Right, You Ain’t White,” as Jillian C. York points out is, for some, “simply a matter of feeling recognized as a distinct group, separate from the White majority,” and for others, it’s a deeply political issue and an important site of resistance.

The census, for good or for ill, is a key mechanism in shaping how we think about, research and analyze race and ethnicity, including what it means to be white.