2010 Census…Answering the Race Question
What does it take to be a census worker? If your answer involved the ability to read pre-scripted statements from a piece of paper and refuse to answer direct questions, you’d be damningly correct. At 4:36 PM CST I called the Census Bureau to clarify their expectations regarding Question #9, which inquires about one’s race. This question is problematic both in their decision to ask it and in answer expectations, but I’ll elaborate on that a bit later. First, the call:
4:36 PM CST
Call placed. The automated system cannot understand me, and after several failed tries declares that it will connect me with an employee.
4:39 PM CST
Connected to the employee, where I ask about what constitutes an acceptable answer to race. She reads an official answer that does not address my question (included below), prompting me to repeat myself. She then says that she cannot answer my question, and to put whatever I want.
4:42 PM CST
I declare that my concern is being legally compliant, and I would thus like to speak with somebody who can indicate whether my intended answer is legal or not.
4:43 PM CST
The second employee indicates that there is no illegal answer to the question, my only obligation is to answer it. She goes on to claim that I can even make up a race if I like.
Now, why is it that I have a question about race? Should that not be exceedingly straightforward?
Put simply, the issue with categorizing oneself by race stems from race being a social construct. This is demonstrated aptly by the fact that there is no universally accepted definition of race, and that there is likewise no uniformity of opinion on what constitutes a racial group and how many exist. This is perhaps most notably demonstrated by the fluidity of our racial categories over the history of the Census.
As Jeff Jacoby notes, we’ve vastly expanded our racial category options:
In 1850, the Census Bureau divided Americans into “white,’’ “black,’’ and “mulatto’’; by 1890, it was classifying “Japanese’’ and “Chinese’’ as races, along with “Negro,’’ “mulatto,’’ “quadroon,’’ “octoroon,’’ and “white.’’ Based on this year’s enumeration, the government proudly announces, “Tabulations will be available for 63 race categories — six single-race categories and 57 different combinations of two or more races.’’
If you’re wondering how there are 63 racial categories now, then let us look at what the Census Bureau has to say:
The Census Bureau collects race data in accordance with guidelines provided by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and these data are based on self-identification. The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country, and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically or genetically. People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture, such as “American Indian and White.” People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.
In addition, it is recognized that the categories of the race item include both racial and national origin or socio-cultural groups. You may choose more than one race category.
As you can see, their definition is exceedingly unhelpful. They acknowledge that their is no biological, anthropological, or genetic standard by which they are defining as race, but that instead the definition shall be the product of social standards. This assumes a national uniformity that does not exist, an acceptance of questionable consensus standards, and attaching oneself to a label whose boundaries are rendered fluid by virtue of their function as a sub-category of something as mutating in definition as race is. More at issue though is the decision to include “national origin” or “socio-cultural groups” as valid identifiers of race, for it would seem to sanction a massive range of answers that in both social and historical context would not fit what the average person understands to be a race. “Korean” is a nationality and “Hmong” is an ethnicity, yet the census lists the former as an option and the latter as an example of an acceptable expansion upon the “Other Asian” choice.
By this standard then, I could readily identify as American, for I was born here. Some conservatives have considered this very idea, and seem to believe it technically legal. And Jacoby agrees, noting that the New York Times endorsed this very notion in the mid-19th century. Of course, I’m a first generation American, the product of legal immigration. Being of Canadian stock, I might then identify under that category instead. But is isn’t as though my family spent centuries in Canada. We fled there from what is now Belarus in the early 20th century, so Belarusian might seem more fitting. Based on the history of said region though, I might just as easily identify as Lithuanian, Polish, or Russian for at one time or another they all occupied said land before my family escaped. The Russians had the most recent control, so identifying as Russian might make the most sense. Complicating the picture though is that fact that my family is most likely not from Belarus, but settled there at some period during the Russian occupation, at which time Russian simultaneously held a multitude of other neighboring territories, any one of them being potential historic homes of my family.
Given how confusing national origin would prove, I might instead identify as being of a socio-cultural group. At the most basic level, that might mean identifying as either Jewish or Semitic. Either should clearly be a valid answer, for just over two decades ago, the US Supreme Court acknowledged Jews as a being part of a racial category separate from Caucasians. This could further justify me describing myself as either Ashkenazi for specificity’s sake, or as Israeli, Hebrew, Egyptian, or Iraqi based on the national origin criteria stated above and Jewish history. Obviously, the national origin identification choices are even more absurd than before, for I am much more removed from any of those lands than Belarus or Canada. Ashkenazi seems equally poor, for it is a better indicator of how frequently I recite Birkat Ha’Kohein and what I consider chametz than anything else. That theoretical value is expunged outright by my atheism.
So why not save myself the mental energy and identify simply as Jewish? After all, the Census is said to collect data for statistical purposes, and will neither be linked to the individual nor freely divulged in a way that threatens privacy. Or at least that is the official claim. History though tells us a much different story. In 1942, Congress passed the Second War Powers Act, which required that”any information or data” be collected by the Census Bureau be made available to other government entities. It is well established that this enabled the government to more easily locate and intern Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. More recently, the Department of Homeland Security collected Census data on Arab-Americans, which we know only through a FOIA petition from EPIC. Given then that the cause for concern extends beyond general distrust of an overreaching government, and there are multiple examples of outright abuse, I have no desire to identify as such on my form.
Many would suggest then that I identify as White. But I see two substantial problems with this. First, as mentioned earlier, I am bothered by the notion of embracing a social construct to placate government workers. Even if I accepted the notion of race, and that White was the logical choice, I would remain hesitant, for virtue of the simple fact that I’m Jewish enough to not be White in the eyes of a disturbingly large percentage of the population. But second, and perhaps more importantly, I do not wish to provide said answer for the very reason that the inquiry on race is pernicious. Look at the official justification for said inquiry:
Information on race is required for many Federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. States use these data to meet legislative redistricting principles. Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.
If you cut past the rhetorical efforts to make this seem positive by citing “civil rights” and “equal opportunity” issues, the meaning is rather clear: tell us your race so that we can better interfere in your community and use race-related issues to justify doing so. Even if we are to assume it will be used only in service of every liberal’s favorite example of what makes this necessary, the Voting Rights Act, it remains objectionable. While laudable in helping to enfranchise Black voters, the VRA has also been widely cited as justification for affirmative racial gerrymandering. That is, while our courts have held that redistricting efforts that diminish the political power of minorities are impermissible, no such restriction extends to redistricting in such a way as to optimally concentrate minorities into voting regions that give them more power. In practice, this leads to the creation of majority-minority districts, where a target percentage is to be Black or Hispanic, so as to ensure that candidates of said group are move viable, and that those groups at large can put their votes to better use. This is extremely objectionable, in that it leads to the creation of extremely odd shaped voting districts, the disproportionate influence of certain groups who are being extended special privilege, and has partisan implications. That last point is especially concerning, for Hispanics, and to a far greater extent Blacks, do not vote Republican. Thus, racial redistricting counts, as one of its major consequences, the creation of permanently Democratic seats, thereby negating the value of having actual elections.
So, knowing that specific racial information is liable to be exposed and abused, and objecting to both the notion or race and the available labels, how did I answer the question of race? I checked “Some other race” and wrote “No race” in the provided box. I am hoping that this does not yield a follow-up phone call or direct visit, but I certainly imagine it will. After all, while the workers I spoke with seemed to believe that however I identified would be valid, and I found “No race” the closest acceptable short answer, I should be compliant with the law. Yet, since my answer surely is not the sort they desire, mere compliance probably won’t end their harassment.
I mention legal compliance because of the United States Code, Title 13 (Census), Chapter 7 (Offenses and Penalties), SubChapter II:
221. Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers
* (a) Whoever, being over eighteen years of age, refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary, or by any other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof acting under the instructions of the Secretary or authorized officer, to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions on any schedule submitted to him in connection with any census or survey provided for by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of this title, applying to himself or to the family to which he belongs or is related, or to the farm or farms of which he or his family is the occupant, shall be fined not more than $100.
* (b) Whoever, when answering questions described in subsection (a) of this section, and under the conditions or circumstances described in such subsection, willfully gives any answer that is false, shall be fined not more than $500.
* (c) Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, no person shall be compelled to disclose information relative to his religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body.
Though the Constitutional mandate for the Census does not mention race as required information, the Supreme Court has held that questions not explicitly included in the Constitution may still be made a mandatory component of the Census, such that legally speaking the above penalties could realistically be imposed on those who fail to answer or who inaccurately answer the Census. Rare as enforcement may be, the risk is higher than I care to assume given my financial limitations and desire to avoid even the remote prospect of imprisonment.
It is clear that we must, legally speaking, all fill out our Census forms, and we must indeed answer absurd questions such as those asking about race. But, short of not outright lying, there is no established guideline. So fill in whatever answer you find most comfortable, appreciating fully the consequences of giving the government certain answers, be it helped to undermine the democratic process or receiving further communications from their army of underinformed temp workers.
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Posted on March 24, 2010, in USA and tagged 2010 Census, Belarus, Caleb Posner, Census, Census Compliance, Constitution, Freedom of Information Act, Homeland Security, Japanese Internment, Jewish History, Legal Compliance, New York Times, Race, racism, VRA. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.