2010 U.S. Census – Some Thoughts

2010 U.S. Census: You’ll Do Fine With Number 9, or “Who Do You Think We Think You Are?”

Steven F. Riley

Much has been written about the apparent dilemma ‘mixed-race’ individuals face when filling in question #9 (racial identification) on the 2010 United States census form. Some believe that such individuals should “mark all that apply” in regards to the racial check boxes to fully express their “total”—if known—racial identity and to do otherwise would somehow “force one to disown” some branch(es) of their family tree.  For others, the census is a decennial opportunity to promote equality and to provide resources to underserved communities.  The census is as Michele Elam comments, “not a place for personal self expression” and that a multiracial individuals should choose just one box—a minority designation—to help fulfill such goals.

Though I do agree that the census is not a place for personal self expression, simply checking one box (if you personally identify as multiracial) strikes me as dishonest and as is often the case, the ends do not justify the means.  We cannot ‘lie’ ourselves towards a more just society.  What I propose is a more nuanced approach to question 9 instead of being as Marcia Dawkins says, “stressed out of the box.” 

The way to reduce the “stress” is to read, and reread the paragraph that explains census question number 9.

Asked since 1790.  Race is key to implementing many federal laws and is needed to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Acts.  State governments use the data to determine congressional, state and local voting districts.  Race data are also used to assess fairness of employment practices, to monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education and to plan and obtain funds for public services.

This description, like all the others on the form, have evolved over the years from the tireless work of government officials.  Most government processes—even under the best of circumstances—are the result of a combination (and compromise) of an adherence to law, a willingness to seek the truth, a deference to custom and tradition, a commitment to justice, and (on occasion) a willingness to accommodate political interests.  It is not perfect, but it is the best we have. Our national census is a once-in-ten-year opportunity to collect demographic information that is vital in maintaining a fair and just democracy.

For those who desire to portray their “accurate racial” identity, I have news for you.  “Racial accuracy” is an oxymoron.  ‘Race’ as a biological, or anthropological construct is an utter fallacy. ‘Race’ is an imaginary 18th-century construct used to physically and emotionally separate European colonists in the Americas from the Indians they conquered and the Africans they enslaved.  Biologically in fact, there is more genetic difference between people within so-called racial groups than outside of them!  The belief in the construct of ‘race’ and the alleged attributes assigned to members of so-called ‘races’ has created the very real phenomena that we still live with today called racism.  Despite centuries racism designed to keep people from so-called “races” from ‘mixing’, we have become a multiracial society.  Whether you consider yourself ‘monoracial’ or ‘multiracial’, no number of boxes checked will provide “racial accuracy.”  There are no pure races and thus, there is no “true racial identity.”

The Census Bureau does not enter into the fray of whether or not ‘race’ is a biological construction—of course, it is not.  It does however, imply that ‘race’ is a sociopolitical construction, or as Melissa Harris-Lacewell says, “is constructed through law, history, culture, practice, custom, etc.”  The census question is neither about an individual’s ancestry informative markers nor about telling “one’s truth.” ‘Race’ and racism exists in a social paradigm, not a psychological paradigm.  One does not discriminate against one’s self.  Discrimination is based on the discriminator’s (society) perceptions of the discriminatee (individual), not the discriminatee’s perception of themselves.

So for the sake of ending discrimination and eliminating  health and educational disparities, I shall muse on the notion that a person should select their racial identity based on what Nikki Khanna refers to as their self-reflected appraisals.  In other words, select the racial identity you think others (society) perceive you (or your children) as.  Or if you will, don’t tell us “Who you think you are.” (your personal identity), but rather, tell us “Who you think we think you are.” (your social identity).  If you believe that society perceives you as a black/white multiracial individual, then check the “White” and “Black” boxes.  If you, like Harris-Lacewell—who has one black and one white parent—believe that society perceives you as she says, “Black… with Access to Residual White Privilege (BWATRWP)”, then check only the “Black” box.  If you believe that society perceives you as racially transcendent, leave all of the boxes blank.  Those who may fear that identifying as multiracial (checking more than on boxes) on the census might impede anti-discrimination goals, should read Nancy Leong’s lengthy article titled Judicial Erasure of Mixed Race Discrimination where she describes persistent racism directed at individuals specifically because they are of mixed-race.

©2010, Steven F. Riley