Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mismeasuring America

The latest round of the statistician full employment stimulus package — aka The Census — wrapped up a couple months ago.

On the form, besides the questions asking where chez Hey Skipper is, and how many Hey Skippers huddle within said chez, was this puzzler:
What is your race?
As far as the Hey Skipperian contribution to Gaia’s saddening burden goes, this doesn’t seem like a toughie: the wage-slave half of the marital bond is a second-ish generation American, of an English mom (born in Leigh, brought to the US at age five; in her mind, the subsequent 72 years have scarcely diluted the original privilege), and second generation American dad, whose grandparents hailed from Germany.

In not particularly stark contrast, the Perfect-In-All-Ways by far the greater half is third generation American, most immediately hailing from Germany. Oddly, though, a recent genealogical exercise assures us that among her ancestors we must include, with an amount of pride difficult to ascertain, Æthelred the Unready, a sometime English King.

So, clearly, the answer is “European-American”.

This clear answer is not on offer, though. I could choose “Native-American”, which I am, but am not. Head-scratchingly, “African-American” and “Asian-American” appear, which clearly entail hitching race to geographic region, yet somehow “European-American” does not, despite featuring rather prominently in both history, colonial abuses beyond counting, and atlases.

Instead, there is “Caucasian”, which appears to be a stand-in for anyone who is melanin challenged — the technical term not being, mystifyingly, People of Not Colour (according, still, to my mom). Except that many Caucasians are from, and, really, who could have anticipated this, Asia through the Caucasus. Which means Caucasians include Indian-Americans (of the country, rather than first targets, then victims, of the US Cavalry), who are typically melanin gifted, but not Caucasian, unless they are all that and Indian-American, which is on the list of races that are regions except when they aren’t, according to their degree of melanism, whatever it might be, but aren’t Asian-American, who both the Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans are, no matter their reactions to being thus conjoined.

Occupying the tail-end of the Baby Boom Generation, although much further from the tip and closer to the nether regions than I would prefer, this head scratching was leading to bleeding, since a goodly portion of my hair has long since gone down the drain.

Probably should have scratched my ears, instead.

Thank goodness — I was having to trim my fingernails to the nub to keep from succumbing to anemia — Kenneth Prewitt, a professor of public affairs* at Columbia University, has boldly offered a fix for this Zeno worthy imponderosity inflicted upon we don’t yet know how many Americans because this is a census after all.

Reassuringly, Prof. Prewitt homes right in on the essential question, which he asks on behalf of a bemused public: “Why does the government insist on sorting and counting us by race?” [emphasis shifted by one word]
There is no simple answer because assorted purposes [which] trace to our history and to contemporary conditions. The tragedies of black slavery and Indian genocide left inequalities that racial justice policies are still trying to erase. Policy responses to disparities in employment, education, health and incarceration call for statistics on groups being left behind.
I’m betting there is no simple answer to why black slavery doesn’t warrant a capital letter, but Indian genocide does. Perhaps that has something to do with Indians not being Indians, while blacks are blacks.

Time to switch to the other ear.

Which is to be bloodied in turn. Left assumed as fact is that the words “racial justice” can appear next to either without a qualifying prefix in between, and that policy responses to any manner of statistician gratifying machinations need not bother themselves with groups that are, heaven forfend, getting ahead.

But wait, there’s more.
Beyond specific policy uses of Census data, citizens see in the Census an opportunity to express pride in their heritage. President Obama emphasized his African heritage by checking only one Census box, rather than recognizing his dual black and white parentage.
No doubt. My chest swelled when I was able to check … ummm …

In response to the same exercise that launched my right eyebrow to Spockian heights, President Obama threw his mother under a bus. Since I am not a Freudian, I won’t venture in that direction. No matter how much that fork in the road needs taking.

Yet, despite the compelling diversity needs and injustice and getting behind, some Mr. Some demands “… the questions be dropped altogether, expecting this to magically produce a color-blind society.”

Perhaps Mr. Some has an alternate identity, and a second census form, as Mr. Strawman.

However, there is, and I am not making this up, A Simpler Way to ask the race question:
What national origin, ethnicity, tribe, language group or ancestry do you consider yourself to be? (List all those important to you.)

From the open-ended responses, answers can be categorized in the various ways that make sense depending on public purposes at hand, even re-constructing the five 18th century races if that is desired.

Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the Obama White House will initiate a serious national conversation** about today's patched together racial classification.
After all, what could possibly go wrong with re-introducing tribalism?

The enemy here is group identity. The best way to pitch that sanguinary nonsense into the nearest ditch is to keep asking those race questions, whether in their preposterous current form, or tarting up that pig as Prof. Hewitt suggests.

Uh oh. Did I just commit an offence against Porcine-Americans?

* No matter what crimes I have committed, or have yet to commit, at least I don’t have to beg forgiveness for this.

** The phrase “initiate a serious national conversation”, hackneyed to the point of deserving an acronym, should make even Brit reach for a gun. Who, after moving Gaia one closer to the actual number of public affairs professors Her Sufferingness actually needs, could then go and find out how bloody hard it is to hit a squirrel.


Blogger Bret said...

I'm hoping, in the end, you checked 'Caucasian'.

July 14, 2010 4:45 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I checked "Other" and wrote in American.

That means that I am an American-American, which leads to a new racial classification: Redundant.

July 14, 2010 4:51 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Great post Skipper. Couldn't agree more. BTW, the link to Prewitt's "study" doesn't work.

Bret, IMO checking "Other" and writing in "American" is the best choice.

July 14, 2010 4:52 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Fixed. Beware of text editors that insert smart quotes.

July 14, 2010 6:31 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

With affirmative action, it's a mistake to check other, since other is not counted. Let's say everybody did that except for, say, blacks. Then all jobs would require 100% black applicants.

July 14, 2010 6:47 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Bret, then others will need affirmative action, so we'll be ahead!

July 14, 2010 6:59 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Hey, I'm finally ahead of myself! And if one day everyone simply writes "American," the color-blind society will have arrived by public choice.

July 14, 2010 7:03 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

... it's a mistake to check other, since other is not counted.

Time for David to do another statistics post.

July 14, 2010 7:49 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Then all jobs would require 100% black applicants.

This is why I am completely in favor of asking the race question at every opportunity.

The preposterosity of the exercise will be its downfall.

July 16, 2010 2:59 PM  
Blogger erp said...


We just came home from a pre-procedure visit to the doctor. We were wondering why we had to make a special trip to be prepped instead of receiving instructions in the mail as we had previously. He told us about new (month-old) Medicare regulations that require all patients be seen within 30 days of any procedure – no exceptions. File under Obama/cost cutting.

There was also a raft of new paperwork.

Previously, I just gave doctors a copy of the computerized medical history I keep of every &$%*@# health related thing that applies to either us. This time, however, the information has to be entered on a Medicare form which had to be filled out there and then. Others in the waiting room didn't have my master list, so there was much consternation. My husband got a cramp writing down all his medications and other questions that needed to be answered.

Luckily there was no essay question.

What does all of this have to do with the topic of this post??

I thought you'd never ask.

One of the questions was Race ______________? Naturally he wrote in American.

When the doctor (an old friend and staunch conservative) saw that he launched into what Obama's insurance scam will mean to him (he's 54) and said that now that his kids, he has seven, are all more or less grown up and on their own, he may "retire."

This is one of the smartest and most dedicated doctors anyone would be privileged to know. I’m sure he’ll be doing good work even if it won’t be taking care of geezers like us.

July 16, 2010 3:42 PM  

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