Race Con-Census?

I filled out my first Census form yesterday. I had a few feelings, questions, and thoughts about it.

Question: Why isn’t the Census form online? Why can I file my taxes online (a long, involved form with several questions), but not fill out my Census online (a remarkably short form that is essentially only asking for proof that I exist and my best guess as to how to classify my race and ethnicity)? I have a theory. I think that the Census Bureau is so eco-conscious, they don’t want a single Census form to have been printed in vain. If people could just fill out their forms online, then that would make some forms a waste of paper. So to ensure that no paper is wasted, everyone has to fill out their paper form. This is also why the Census Bureau sent everyone a letter telling them that the form was coming and that they must fill it out.

Feeling: Uneasiness. I didn’t like having to give the Census Bureau my number. They say it’s so they can call me if any of my answers don’t make sense. But I say if any of my answers don’t make sense, it’s because the question(s) didn’t make sense. And if they call me, I’m going to tell them so.

Feeling: Elation when my full hyphenated name fit in the allotted space. I have recently discovered the one disadvantage to hyphenating my last name…it’s going to be too long for a lot of places, like a credit card. Sigh.

Question: I had a lot of questions once I got to Hispanic origins and race questions.

Why is “Hispanic origin” separated from race? This was really bothering me, so I looked into it. Apparently, the government has tried to streamline the criteria for data collection with respect to race. And “Hispanic” has been deemed an ethnicity separate and apart from race. They argue that someone could be from somewhere like Mexico, but also be black or white (or a different race). And while that makes sense to me, I also think the same is true of any country that they included in the race category (though perhaps less likely).

This question brought out the little conspiracy theorist that sometimes resides within me. I have heard that before long, racial minorities will quantitatively be the majority, and that it is specifically the Hispanic/Latino population that will become the majority first. So I could only wonder if this separation of ethnicity from race only where Hispanics are concerned was a way to pad the numbers…of whites, that is.

Why is the word “negro” being used on this form? Didn’t that term (within American standards, at least) fall the way of Indian (meaning Native American) and Oriental? That’s what I thought, but apparently it’s okay according to the Census Bureau. So I went to their website to find out where the terminology comes from. It is the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that regulates the racial/ethnic terms used whenever the government collects data. Their 1997 “Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity” renamed the “Black category” as “Black or African American” but also lists “Haitian or Negro” as optional add-ons. This is also the document that separated “Hispanic origins” from the race category in an attempt to document ethnicity. So “Negro” was an optional term the Census Bureau decided to use. I find that fascinating.

Why does the Census Bureau only care about racial and ethnic detail from certain areas? If you’re white or black, that’s all they want to know, but if you’re a Native American (which they call American Indian) they want to know your tribal affiliation. All of Europe falls under the category of white—unless you’re from Spain, in which case you’re Hispanic/Latino. Asian countries are each separated from each other as different racial categories, but the majority of the countries on the African continent fall under only one. Given that most African-Americans probably don’t know which country their ancestry comes from, I can somewhat understand this, but what about all the African-Americans who (or whose families) recently emigrated? For me, it wasn’t about the racial details they did ask about. I was curious about all the information the Census doesn’t want to know. The OMB only established a minimum for racial data categories: “American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White.” In addition, The OMB determined two classifications for ethnicity: “Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino.” So everything else the Census asks for is information they want.

When it came to the Hispanic and especially Asian designations, I also found it really interesting to note which countries got their own box, and which were lumped into the box for “other.” For instance, Vietnam gets its own box, but Thailand does not. And I was surprised to find that Pakistan was listed as an example under “Other Asian.” I had always thought it was part of the Middle East.

And speaking of people from the Middle East, what box are they supposed to check? Apparently recommendations were made to have an ethnicity category created for “Arab or Middle Eastern,” but OMB decided against it. However, the decision to not add this ethnic category was made with the caveat that more research was needed as to how best to define this group and collect relevant data. In the meantime, they’re white, which the OMB defines as, “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” I was surprised by everything except the Europe part.

In reading over the OMB’s definition for each race and ethnicity category, I found one more thing that interested me. Technically the category of “American Indian or Alaska Native” only applies if you belong to a tribe or maintain some level of attachment to a tribal community. That is the only racial category with any such requirement. I find that interesting, especially considering the following from the OMB: “Race and ethnicity may be thought of in terms of social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry.”

I’m not looking to give the Census Bureau or the OMB a hard time. Even the Negro thing left me less annoyed than curious. Perhaps my brain is also still buzzing a bit from the recent Racial Reconciliation seminar I attended, but filling out my Census form really got me thinking about race and how it is seen in our country right now. How much (if at all) of how we classify and define race is still rooted in antiquated ideologies? And who is drawing the lines that determine the categories? And what does it really mean about America that our president has black ancestry—or, as the Census Bureau would classify it, Black/African American/Negro?


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