The Censuslessness of Race

Hopefully, by now you’ve completed and returned your census form.  (Except for Kim, who so far they have refused to count.  This may be confirmation that she is but a figment of my imagination, which in turn makes my imagination way better than I thought. But I digress.) Probably the most contentious question on the census is about your race.

Blacks who are not African American are annoyed they are lumped in with other Blacks.  And everyone is annoyed about the term “Negro”, expect  those who apparently wanted to check the box.  Hispanics are annoyed they are an ethnicity and not a race.  Not to be left out, I’d like to be annoyed as well.

I was left with checking the box next to “White” as the only real option  available to me.  However, while marking the form I couldn’t help thinking that white is a color, not a race.  Looking for a little validation, I did a bit of research.  I expected to find that Races of human beings were the four I had learned at school: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, and American Indian.  To my surprise, it turns out that race is actually a much more subjective grouping.  Different cultures define race differently.  The four races I learned were a popular 18th century delineation, but by no means the only accepted one.

It seems the only thing known for sure about race is that it is a grouping of people based on heritable physical traits.  By that definition, the  Hispanics have an argument about why they should be a race.  You can usually reasonably tell a Hispanic person by sight.  Certainly more easily than you can distinguish a Jamaican from an Ethiopian.  And as an exceptionally pale man of northern European descent, should I really be lumped in with all the olive skinned Greeks and Italians?

All of which begs the larger question, why does anyone care?  The census has an interest in groupings of people for purposes of allocation of resources, but this has more to do with cultural groupings than heritable physical traits.  My college educated corporately employed dark skinned neighbor is more usefully grouped with me than with urban homeless African Americans in Phoenix.  Similarly, please don’t group me with the excessively light pallor of the nuts at a typical Tea Party.

The ultimate goal of creating cultural groupings as part of the census does make sense.  But I’m having a lot of trouble rationalizing why race, per se, is a useful question at all.  Perhaps a lot of this angst over census questions could be eliminated if we just asked better questions—perhaps the ones we really wanted answers to.

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