Even the U.S. Census Is Totally Baffled By Race Politics

The U.S. Census is re-evaluating how they measure race for the 2020 Census. Our country is rapidly diversifying, both culturally and racially, which makes the Census’ job that much more critical and complicated. As the 2010 Census has shown, Latinos, who often have difficulty assigning themselves a particular “race,” have replaced African Americans as the nation’s largest minority group, with 50 million in 2010 (challenging the appropriateness of the use of the term “minority”).

The U.S. Census currently officially recognizes five racial categories: white, black or African-American, Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native and Pacific Islander. Census data is used for a variety of purposes such as determining the makeup of voting districts, monitoring discriminatory practices in hiring, and racial disparities in education and health. The data also informs and validates the work of many community-based organizations, and allows researchers to analyze and assess the social, health and economic status of specific population groups.

Race has always been difficult to understand and many disagree on the actual benefits of assigning/ defining race as we do. The concept of race in the United States is heavily influenced by the end of slavery, segregation, waves of immigration from all over the world, and intermarriage. Our current racial categories do not recognize currently growing racial and ethnic diversity, nor do they acknowledge the current immigration trends and how they may change over time.

The 2010 Census provided those of Latino descent a space to fill in their race which yielded a strong response. One of the many potential changes to the Census is eliminating the “Hispanic Origin” question and combining it with the question regarding race — along with providing spaces for Asian descent, and other new questions.

The term “Latino” (or “Hispanic”) is a contested term that attempts to broadly unite a group of people who are different culturally and racially but united by (perhaps) a language, though sometimes not even that. In the 2010 Census, this problem of grouping can be seen in that the “some other race” category ranked as the third-largest racial category, and NPR claims that 97% of those respondents were of Hispanic descent.

Another trend among darker-skinned Latinos and Afro-Latinos is to check “Black” as Race along with checking “Latino.” I have always done this — on college applications, the Census and other official documents — yet it does not fully capture the complexity of my racial composition. As a Puerto Rican, born and raised in New York City (aka a Nuyorican), checking 'Black' is an homage to my African roots — and for others, a recognition of my dark skin. In America, the definition of white still very much implies white purity. Just one ounce of “black blood” defines someone as black. Nonetheless, on a personal level, I do not see my race as 'Black'; that is just how society would define me. My race is inextricably connected to my ethnicity in a way that no combination of box-checking can accurately describe.  

One major problem is that our country’s official concept of race differs greatly from the way people identify themselves in this country. America seems to be obsessed with a black-white dichotomy. While race usually refers to common physical traits, many people identify on the basis of cultural traits like language, country of origin, and shared social challenges.

The current Census race question also marginalizes Americans of Middle Eastern, North African and Asian descent. There is no box for Middle Eastern or Arab, and because the government considers Middle Eastern and North African to be ancestries, they define these groups as racially white — which seems to me as more problematic than simply including ancestry in the Census. According to Samer Araabi of the Arab American Institute, Middle Eastern people “don't necessarily identify as white because we have a lot of cultural and socioeconomic idiosyncrasies that are different.”

In a country in which there is an exponential growth of multiracial peoples, there should be a greater emphasis on embracing differences. In 2010, 9 million people identified as multiracial, (compared with nearly 6 million in 2000), with Asians and Hispanics being the groups with the highest rates of interracial marriage in 2010.

But what will the rephrasing of the race question actually solve? Currently, when respondents do not choose a race on their Census, one is assigned to them based on their neighborhood’s demographics, which leads to a less than accurate portrayal of the nation.

Then why does race still matter for the Census?

Besides affecting the political clout of the groups recorded by the census — if America kept better records of the racial/ethnic trends, politicians could be better aware of the trends within those mixed-race communities. By making the race question more relevant to today’s Americans, the Census would be more accessible and would therefore yield more responses. A more appropriate phrasing of the Census’ race question would also better inform politicians and others making decisions on behalf of these racially and ethnically mixed communities.

What the U.S. Census has not understood is that assigning or identifying oneself as a particular race is not a simple task especially for mixed race people. It a mission that often takes a lifetime especially in a country where race-politics is so pervasive. I am not saying race is not  important (quite the opposite actually), but rather that race is a social construct that is continuously changing over time. Therefore, the Census would be more accurate if it were more inclusive.

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Justine Gonzalez

Justine Gonzalez is currently pursuing her masters degree in Urban Policy from the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. She has her BA in Sociology and Spanish from Smith College. While at Smith, she was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow which allowed her to do independent research on the relationship between race, nation building policies and education. Justine is currently living in New York City where she was born and raised. Her interests range from immigration policy, social justice, race, class and gender inequality.

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