Race and the U.S. Census: Hey NPR, Your Hipster Hate Hides Diversity

NPR recently ran a story called “New York’s Hipsters Too Cool For The Census.” This story has made the media-rounds with outlet after outlet (yes, even Stephan Colbert ) unable to resist grabbing the low-hanging fruit that is hipster-hate by arguing that hipsters in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn are too “cool” and busy Twittering to mail back their census forms.

(Creative Commons Image Source)

What is clear is that the very sizable non-hipster and non-affluent populations in Williamsburg are largely invisible to NPR and the others. We know that both non-whites and the poor are historically undercounted in the census (something the Bureau, to its credit, has been trying to solve). However, most in the media refer to Williamsburg simply as a hipster enclave and overlook the other populations in that diverse neighborhood.

You hear it all the time – that “Williamsburg is full of hipsters” (here, I’m trying to avoid the trap of defining this group that so often rejects definition). Yes, Williamsburg does have many “hipsters”, but the other populations seem to be mysteriously missing from discussions about the neighborhood. There exists sizable Hasidic, Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican), African American and non-affluent White populations as well.

Amazingly, NPR did mention that the true lower response rates come from the heavily Hasidic areas. Other bloggers have also pointed this out. However, faced with this obvious evidence for the low response rates, the title of NPR’s report, as well as most of its content and final conclusion (that the census needs to be “cool” for hipsters to respond), focuses on the largely affluent, white hipster.

Instead of using this as an opportunity to discuss the structural reasons why disadvantaged populations are undercounted in the census, NPR instead fuels (1) the invisibility of non-hipsters (primarily the Hasids, Hispanics, African Americans) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and (2) the knee-jerk reaction against self-presentations outside the norm that has taken the form of hipster-hate. Hipsters develop a self-presentation that is different than the norm, which causes confusion and, expectedly, leads to hate –hence the ridiculous knee-jerk conclusion that Williamsburg has low response rates because hipsters must be too cool or technologically connected to participate in the census.

~ Nathan Jurgenson, PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland

Race and the U.S. Census: ‘Confederate Southern’ Whites Want Separate Category

There is a push among some southern whites in the U.S. for a separate category on the census. The Southern Legal Resource Center is calling on self-proclaimed “Confederates” to declare their heritage when they are counted in the 2010 Census. According to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the organization is urging white Southerners to declare their “heritage and culture” by classifying themselves as “Confederate Southern Americans” on the line on the form, question No. 9, that asks for race. Check “other” and write “Confed Southern Am” on the line beside it.

In a move that appropriates the language of multiculturalism, the director this organization says:

“In this age of honoring diversity, Southern/Confederate people are the last group in America that can be maligned, ridiculed and defamed with impunity. Using the Census to unite the Southern/Confederate community can be a significant first step to our obtaining rights and recognition that all American ethnic groups are entitled to.”

Scholar Tara McPherson, USC, has written about neo-confederate groups such as this in a chapter called “I’ll take my stand in Dixie-Net: White guys, the South, and cyberspace,” in Kolko, B. E., L. Nakamura, and G. B. Rodman’s edited volume, Race in Cyberspace, New York:Routledge (2000), and in her book, Reconstructing Dixie,  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, (2003). McPherson’s take on these groups is complex, nuanced and theoretically informed by cultural studies.

A key point from her work are important to note here about this move to racialize the census in a new way by “Confed Southern Am’s.”   Although it would be easy to place these neo-Confederates in a group with other white supremacist groups, McPherson cautions that this is too simplistic and facile.   In contrast to other white southern groups may affiliate themselves with a “Lost Cause” ideology that characterize blacks as racial Others who are either loyal ex-slaves who benefited from plantation life or a dangerous ‘cancer,’ the neo-confederates focus almost exclusively on whiteness, albeit a whiteness that is naturalized and taken-for-granted (McPherson, 2003, p.110).

Thus, rather than engaging in overt expressions of racism, the neo-Confederates that McPherson studies adopt the language of multiculturalism in an attempt to place regional, Southern, whiteness as equivalent to African American or any of the other identities now represented in Questions 8 and 9 on the 2010 census.    Why do this?  It’s a rhetorical and political strategy that seeks to undermine moves toward racial equality by de-emphasizing the power and social resources associated with ‘whiteness.’    Once again, the census proves to be useful a lens through which we can view the current landscape of racial politics in the U.S.

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.

Counting Multiracial People in the Census: The Unfulfilled Wish for More Data

People who study the multiracial population are constantly confronted with the problem of small numbers to work with.  A recent article I co-authored on the multiracial health (Bratter, Jenifer and Bridget K. Gorman. Forthcoming. “Does Multiracial Matter? A Study of Racial Disparities in Self Rated Health. Demography)  required combining seven years of data from a health survey (over 1.7 million cases) to get 20,000 mixed-race folks for analysis.  The 2000 Census, with its “check all that apply” race question, remains the database with the largest number of cases and the 2010 Census will be the first to count race the same way as the preceding installment. While this may sound like a mundane detail, this will allow us to gauge growth, decline, or stability of this population and whether this will affect the population bases of single-race communities.  If the sheer anticipation doesn’t shake you to your core, perhaps you have forgotten the history of introducing this option into the Census.

Back in the 1990’s, deciding how to count the multiracial population was a hot political controversy, pitting two sides of a debate on race and identity against each other.  According to Williams (Williams, Kimberley M. 2006. Mark one or More: Civil Rights in Multiracial America. Boston: Harvard University Press), multiracial organizations argued that the previous approach forced mixed-race children to choose one race and one side of themselves.  Civil rights groups argued that this would weaken the population bases and the political power of monoracial groups, unnecessarily complicate the tracking of enforcement of civil rights legislation (which uses Census counts), and, unofficially provide an option for individuals who wished to abandon their race. Introducing “check all that apply”, not a single multiracial box, seemed like the perfect resolution. Multiracial people could be enumerated and be linked back to their component groups for tracking dynamics of monoracial communities.

Despite these hopes and fears, things remained pretty much the same.  Although about 6.7 million persons (no small demographic potatoes) choose two or more races, it made the biggest difference for groups that had faced issues of mixed-heritage and identity for centuries – American Indians and Native Hawaiians.  Meanwhile, there was little movement in the population base of the largest groups: Whites, Blacks, and to a lesser extent Asians. Also, approximately half of this group was under 18, which may mean that parents of multiracial children were declaring this as a race (Jones, Nicholas and Amy S. Smith. 2001. “Two or more Races Population : 2000.” [pdf] United States Census Bureau).  As Reynolds Farley, declared in 2004, this was a “social movement that succeeded, but failed” to dramatically change our way of thinking about race (Farley, Reynolds. 2004. “Identifying with Multiple Races: A Social Movement that Succeeded but Failed?” Pp 123-128 in The Changing Terrain of Race and Ethnicity edited by Maria Krysan and Amanda Lewis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation).  Maybe it’s just about timing, as many tell me. Including multiracial in any form is a recent development, the public has simply not gotten used to checking that box (or boxes). But alas, Farley’s estimates of inter-censual growth using the American Community Survey show a decline in the percentage of people selecting more than one race, from 2.4 to 1.9 percent (Farley, Reynolds. 2006. “The Multiple Race Population: Is it increasing or decreasing?” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. Montreal, Canada).

This raises a bigger question – why haven’t things changed more?  Aren’t we living in as multiracial society as we ever have? On one hand, multiculturalism seems to be everywhere, from mixed-race celebrities and high profile interracial couples, to growing racial/ethnic diversity. And ofcourse, there’s the rise of the nation’s first openly mixed-race U.S. President.  But even Obama’s multiracial flag isn’t flown that high.  He is universally touted as our first “Black” president, a racial identity he solidly embraces.  And he’s not alone.  Several studies using 2000 data show that selecting single races for biracial children is not uncommon. Since the U.S. Census ceased using enumerators, choosing a racial category goes far beyond simple ancestral accounting, which would place most everyone in the multiracial camp if they had the option. It reflects a sense of who we are and most importantly how we are treated.

Quantifying “treatment” is never an easy task, but any cursory look at social trends tells us that lives are lived very differently by race.  The level of school segregation by race is nearly as high as it was in the 1960’s (Sikkink, David, and Michael O. Emerson. 2008. “School Choice and Racial Residential Segregation: The Role of Parent’s Education.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31:267-293), neighborhoods continue to be segregated by race (Wilkes, Irma and John Iceland, 2004.”Hypersegregatation in the 21st Century” Demography 41 (1): 23- 36), and while interracial marriage is increasing, its far lower than one would expect if race were not a factor (Qian, Zhenchao and Daniel Lichter. 2007. “Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage.” American Sociological Review 72:68-94).  White per capita income continues to exceed Black per capita income by more than 12,000 dollars and Blacks can expect to die on average 5 years sooner than their White counterparts (Heron MP, Hoyert DL, Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Kochanek KD, Tejada-Vera B. Deaths: Final data for 2006. National vital statistics reports; vol 57 no 14.[pdf] Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2009).  Despite declines in reporting overtly racist attitudes, minorities continue to report confronting racial prejudice and growing number of studies report that having these experiences is significantly detrimental to their health (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008. “Table 688. Per Capita Money Income in Current and Constant (2007) Dollars by Race and Hispanic Origin” in Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007, Current Population Reports, P60-235.  Author tabulation of difference between the per capita income (in 2007 dollars) for Blacks (alone or in combination), which was $18,107, and non-Hispanic Whites (alone), which was $31,051).

How can one sustain an identity “in-between” races when so much of our lives are patterned by racial divisions? From this vantage point, the paltry percentages and small sample sizes are yet one more testimony that we believe we are a multicultural society and but really aren’t.  However, what gets overshadowed is that race does not cease to matter just because one selects more than one. Living “in-between” races does not qualify one for a pass on discrimination. Population projections forecasting a coming white minority do not include as “white” those who select white alongside other races. And why should they, when the official policy of the Office of Management and Budget is to include those of partial minority and majority races among the minority group for civil rights purposes (Williams, David R., Harold Neighbors, and Jackson 2003. “Race/Ethnic Discrimination and Health: Findings from Community Studies.” American Journal of Public Health 93: 200-208). Other indicators follow suit.  According to our recent findings on multiracial health, those selecting more than one race do not have substantially better health that their component populations, and, in the case of White-American Indians, they report their health as significantly worse than their White counterparts (Goldstein, Joshua and Ann J. Morning. 2002. “Back in the Box:The Dilemma of Using Multiple-Race Data for Single-Race Laws.” Pp. 119-136 in The New Census Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Individuals, edited by J. Perlmann and M. C. Waters. New York: Russell Sage).  While some read these trends as examples of the unique challenges faced by the mixed-race population, this is simply a shade of the same old story: race still matters – no matter how many you choose.

So here’s my plea, if you believe you are mixed-race at all, mark those races. You’re not abandoning your tribe, nor are you escaping race.  You are just recording all your complexity, and making some researchers very happy.

~ Jenifer L. Bratter is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Rice University and Program Director for Race Scholars at Rice Institute of Urban Research (IUR).

History of Racial Classification in the US Census: 1790-2010

Every census from 1790 to the present has recognized the racial or color category of “white.” But there has been interesting variation over time in how census enumeration methods have placed people in this category. There also are interesting variations in how the data for whites are reported. The following are some selected points of interest I think are worth noting. (For more detail on these points, I list two sources I drew on at the end; they may be helpful for getting started.) While the census has alway recognized the race or color category of “white”, here are a few variations over time that I am aware of and that may be interesting to some:

1. Early censuses 1790-1820 had no instructions or set categories for how to enumerate “color” and there were no formal “schedules” or “forms” on which enumerators were required to list color. Enumerators used their own judgment about listing color in their records with no guidelines from the census. When the data were coded and tabulated, persons were treated as white by default if no other specific color was provided.

2. 1830 brought the first form in which there was a specific place for enumerators to list color. Still no guidelines from the census on how to enumerate people on color.

3. 1890 was the first census in which “white” was not the default coding if race was not mentioned in enumerator records (1790-1820) or was left blank on the form (1830-1880). In this census, white had to be specified on the form.

4. 1790-1950 the census enumerators made the judgment on color. Starting in 1960, the respondent made the judgment.

One interesting trend here is how Hispanics have ultimate been classified on race after 1950. The census instructions are clear that most persons of Hispanic background should be coded white under census coding guidelines. Through 1950, census enumerators followed those instructions. In the transition to self report, Hispanic respondents sometimes disregarded the census instructions and classified themselves as something other than white. The rate of doing so jumped sharply in 1970 and by 1980 exceeded 50%. It has stayed that high since.

This caused an appreciable drop in the white population in the Southwestern states from what it would have been had census practices of 1950 been continued.

5. Around the decades of high immigration — 1880-1930 – distinctions among whites were of great concern. Consequently, tabulations for whites were regularly broken out by native and foreign born due to the concerns about differences among native whites and new immigrants of the era. That practice was discontinued after 1940.

So, the word “white” has remained a constant. But how people are assigned to the category and how those data are reported has varied quite a bit over time.

Mark Fossett, Texas A&M University

For further information and other sources relating to these issues, see the following works.

Reynolds Farley. 1970. The Growth of the Black Population. Markham.

Joel Perlmann and Mary C. Waters (eds.). 2002. “The New Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Indivuals. Russell Sage Foundation.

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.

Race and the U.S. Census: Are Racial Categories Racist?

To many, the very fact of a census taker asking “what race are you?” evokes a racist past that we’d like to move beyond.  Today in our week-long series on “Race and the U.S. Census,” I’ll consider some of the recent arguments about whether the census use of racial categories is, in itself, a form of racism.


(Photo by Ed Clark from here.)

Dr. Kelly, writing at CNN’s iReport website, argues strongly for the case that the categories themselves reinforce a greater valuation of “white” over “black” and that the whole notion of referring to people as colors is wrong-headed:

The reason we should not be referring to people as colors is because in our society, colors have meaning. The color white, for example, is associated with most things good (e.g., birth, weddings, angels, goodness, purity, virginity, etc.), and the color black is associated with most things bad (e.g., death, funerals, evil, bad luck, uncertainty, fear, etc.). In referring to people as colors, we are applying labels that subtly socialize individuals to associate being White with being good and being Black with being bad. The Census needs to set an example and stop referring to people as colors.

Meanwhile, some scholars and journalists have noted that the use of the word “negro” on the census form is offensive to some and should not be used in the 2010 count.   However, sociologist  Dr. L’Heureux Dumi Lewis has a different take:

I am all for rallying around a cause. I’m just not sure I can meet ya’ll down at the Census offices for a protest over Negro. Focus groups, lettering writing campaigns, and write ins suggest some of our older brothers and sisters still support the term. Let’s focus energy in creating greater political clout, not appropriate nomenclature.

Lewis goes on to point out three issues that are worth paying attention to, in his view, around the census (the counting of prisoners, who gets counted as white, and undercounts), and we’ll get to those later in the series.

The fact is, many observers are wary of the census when it comes to race.   Jillian C. York writes at the Global Voices Online blog that:

This year, there has been controversy in the Arab-American community over the question of race, because “Arab” is not included. Arabs are supposed to check “White” as their race, or can write in “Arab” or their chosen ethnicity (e.g., Syrian, Saudi), though they will still be counted as officially white. Maytha at Kabobfest believes that this is dis-empowering to Arab Americans…

The kind of push-back by Arab Americans that York notes is what has happened in the past with the census categories.  Part of the reason that the census categories change each ten years is that activists demand inclusion in the census.    And, every ten years, there are complaints from groups that are undercounted or left out of the census completely.

So, the question becomes then are these categories themselves problematic?   Is it better to count and include racial categories however flawed, or not count race at all?  We’ll explore these issues, and more, in coming installments in the series.

Race and the U.S. Census: Special Series

This week at Racism Review, we’ll be doing a special series on “race and the U.S. Census” with contributions from a number of guest blogger-scholars (hat tip to @eclisham for suggesting the idea). I thought that this clip from Jon Stewart’s show featuring an interview with Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, the administrator of the census:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Gary Locke Pt. 1
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Reform