The U.S. Department of Commerce perpetuates racism in the United States. If that sounds like an unfair assessment, consider the racial designations that Commerce’s Bureau of the Census uses in its decadal surveys, including the one most of us have recently completed. Keep in mind that state governments and local school boards adopt the same designations used by the Census Bureau.
Census crudely requires self-designation in roughly four areas:
• According to the broadest skin-color groupings — “White” or “Black, African American or Negro.”
• In one, and only one, case, according to the pan-cultural designation — “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.”
• American Indian or Alaskan native.
• A conglomerate of national or regional origins and cultures (Asian Indian, Cuban, Chinese, Hmong, Native Hawaiian, etc.).
Not only are the racial groupings used in the Census categorically illogical, but even by Census’ own admission they have no scientific or sociological validity.
Clearly the purpose of the census is to count citizens to ensure the fair representation of the American people in Congress as described in Article I, Section 1, of the Constitution. Beyond the needs for representation and taxes, what else is the Census really trying to measure. Skin color? Culture? Ancestral, national or geographic origin?
The focus on skin color could be an anachronism derived from the original constitutional designations “free Persons,” “Indians (not taxed)” and the “three fifths of all other Persons,” i.e., slaves. Or, perhaps a carryover from 18th- and 19th- Century British colonialism in which the skin color designation “black” applied to anyone from Italy to Indonesia with greater skin pigmentation than the typical British citizen.
The Census designation “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” includes anyone from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America (whether or not one’s first language is Spanish or even if one has no Spanish ancestry), and, of course, the people of Spain. “For this census, Hispanics are not races,” the Census short form says.
A similar pan-cultural grouping, as chimerical as Hispanic, is Middle Eastern — whether Arabic, Pan-Arabic, or some other category. Nowhere, however, does Middle Eastern even appear on the Census form. Middle Eastern or Arabic culture — defined as loosely as Hispanic in the Census — runs widely across continents and skin colors. Given Census’ willingness to attempt to enumerate and differentiate sub-groupings for Hispanic origins, for example Mexicans and Cubans from “another Hispanic,” such as Columbians, Nicaraguans, etc., why exclude Middle Eastern origins from the Census?
And to what does the term “African-American” on the Census questionnaire refer — to Native Americans of African origins (as distinct from the “American Indian” category, which also appears on the questionnaire) or recent émigrés to the United States from African nations?
It doesn’t really matter. In another omission, there is no category on the Census form for African (let alone designations for origination from African nationalities, cultures or regions). So, while Census wants to know how many Americans have Pacific Island origins, it does not want to know how many Americans are from Africa. Apparently, that is covered by the ridiculously shallow skin color designation. As far as the Census is concerned, Fijian origins matter and Nigerian origins do not.
The designation “Black” is meaningless as a categorical reference to Africa, a continent of incredible human diversity. Let’s be honest, black and white have meaning only as base political designations.
Anthropologists James F. Downs and Hermann K. Bleibtreu more than two generations ago discussed the problems associated with attempting to define race as a biological concept. They explained races in their 1972 book, Human Variation, as classifications of types of human beings based on culturally selected criteria, such as skin color and the characteristics of a person’s hair, nose, lips, eyes, etc., and described how prejudices rather than science demarcate distinctions between people.
Other biologists and anthropologists agree with that point of view. “What constitutes race and how one recognizes a racial difference are culturally determined,” wrote James C. King in the revised edition of his book, The Biology of Race.
The Census Bureau attempts to take the high-road as a mask for its racist stereotyping by placing the onus on the citizen: “The concept of race as used by the Census Bureau reflects self-identification by people according to the race or races with which they most closely identify."
The bureau’s play to self-identification belies the fact that the Census provides the very limiting, historically stereotypical categories available for selection. “These categories are sociopolitical constructs and should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature,” Census says, closing its circular reasoning with a final useless sentence, “Furthermore, the race categories include both racial and national-origin groups.”
Recapping the Census logic, race refers to self-selection by members of the population from a very limited set of choices, two of the Census categories are based on one largely irrelevant biological characteristic — the extremes of skin pigmentation — and there are options from a range of national and cultural origins. Once the selection is made from either a “racial or national origin group,” then a race has been defined.
However, according to the census form, Hispanics from Mexico do not constitute a racial group until they select Black, White or other category after selecting Hispanic. And not one African or Middle Eastern person was counted.
Especially in times of tight budgets, how much taxpayer money is necessary to support the continuation of such nonsense by the Census Bureau? Might we profit more if Census were to return to “enumerating the population” for the purposes described in the Constitution without attempting archaic racial designations? The world is not black and white and neither is the United States.
That “the failure to define races scientifically has not ended racism,” as Steve Olson put it in his 2002 book, Mapping Human History, is clear enough. “Blatant racism remains deeply embedded in the broader society,” he added.
Must Census cling to race? Why not measure elements of the population by cohorts according to cultural and national origin and nothing more? Or offer a wider, more representative array of choices.
If what is measured can’t have scientific validity, then determine what should be measured or give up the endeavor.
“It is foolish to attempt to preserve what is not there, even more so when what one is trying to preserve is not even beneficial to mankind,” say Downs and Bleibtreu.
Amen to that.