Erasure and Recognition: The Census, Race and the National Imagination

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Law, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2010-05-03 01:35Z by Steven

Erasure and Recognition: The Census, Race and the National Imagination

Northwestern University Law Review
Number 97, Number 4 (2003)
Pages 1701-1768

Naomi Mezey, Professor of Law
Georgetown University Law Center

This Article is concerned with the constitutive power of the census with respect to race. It is an examination of the U.S. Census as an aspect of what Angela Harris calls race law, “law pertaining to the formation, recognition, and maintenance of racial groups, as well as the law regulating the relationships among these groups.” While others have noted and explored the epistemological and constitutive functions of the census race categories, my aim is to unpack this insight in the context of two specific examples of categorical change and contest: the addition of a Chinese racial category in 1870 and the debate over a multiracial category in 2000. In addition, I analyze the differing sites of categorical reimagining in each instance, further exploring how the census has been deeply influential in two different directions: informing, defining and naming the racial identity of specific groups, and informing an imagined racial identity of “the nation.” The census is a kind of mass public performance of nationality; it is both a legal and cultural mechanism for imagining the American nation, a nation that has always represented itself with racial specificity. Over 200 years the content and significance of its racial categories have varied considerably, but the census appears to consistently play a crucial role in both constructing and reinventing a national identity and influencing the self-definition and identity of a number of subnational groups. In short, this paper is about how census classifications have contributed to our understanding of race, to the grammar and logic of identity discourse, and to a particular way of imagining the nation. Its primary aim is to explore some of the dynamics between official racial counting, popular conceptions of race, and racialized views of the nation. In doing so, it will address a series of questions. When do census or other legal categories seem to drive popular notions of race? When do popular understandings of race seem to drive official categorization? When and how are the politics of racial classification mobilized toward national inclusion or exclusion? A secondary aim of this Article is to aid in enlarging our sense of what “law” is by investigating alternate legal forms; in this case, by pursuing how a state apparatus like the census is not just legal by virtue of its constitutional and statutory origins, but in the way it generates and enforces cultural norms, race-based rights and disabilities, and the boundaries of identity.

Table of Contents


…2. Policing Racial Identity.

Embedded in the congressional testimony on census categories is another debate about the role of the census in the production of identity: it is a debate about what race is, how we confer and “administer” it, and who gets to define its contested contours. And the answers to those questions matter to how we imagine ourselves as a nation.  It is in this sense that the battle over a multiracial census category participates in the larger politics of “racial formation,” and control over racial identity. This debate has serious implications for our national imagination at a time when there is deep ambivalence about the racial choices available to us.

In policing the boundaries of their different racial identities, the civil rights groups seek to protect a particular vision of the group against attack from both within and without. From within, they have to confront the dissent or exit of those likely to identify as multiracial, and from without they have to fight against deracialization by those who see a multiracial category as a step toward colorblindness. The danger in both cases is the ease with which such maneuvers end up essentializing race. For example, evident in arguments against census recognition of a separate multiracial category by various opponents are implicit claims that multiracial advocates are betraying their (minority) race. While arguments by opponents of a multiracial category take a number of forms, almost all of them are at heart claims that ”you are really one of us,” and to the extent that multiracial people reject that appeal, they are serving the interests of racial subordination. Such moves are emblematic of the tendency of all cultural and racial groups to discipline from within and to use law to protect themselves from redefinition and “cultural dissent.” What opponents fail to appreciate is that their attempts to police the borders of group identity are partly responsible for the multiracial movement. As Maria Root notes, “multiracial people experience a ‘squeeze’ of oppression as people of color and by people of color.”

The problem, of course, is that the opponents of a multiracial category are also right; the dissent they are trying to suppress is potentially dangerous to efforts aimed at ameliorating discrimination on the basis of race. Internal resistance has been used in the service of external attack. For example, opponents worry about how attractive the multiracial movement has been to some alarming bedfellows on the right (and left, it should be admitted) who seek to destabilize racial categories altogether.” This is not an inconsequential concern. Newt Gingrich endorsed adding a multiracial category not only as a step toward overcoming racial division but also as an effort to get rid of race categories altogether. Gingrich’s push toward ultimate color blindness has gained many allies in the 1980s and 1990s who have wanted to deracialize American law and culture. john powell has pointed out that this position is not necessarily benign. “The language used by the new right of a raceless, colorblind society is viewed by some not simply as an error, but as a strategy or racial project to maintain white supremacy and racial hierarchy.” Yet it is not clear that those who advocate dismantling racial hierarchies should embrace our current and increasingly incoherent race categories. As Angela Harris has observed, “the notion of race is problematic for anti-racists because at the most subtle, seldom examined level, ‘race’ entrances us in a familiar but dangerous metaphysics: a representational economy in which bodies stand in both for power and history…

…What is particularly interesting about the high percentage of multiracial children is that children do not fill out census forms. Children are being identified as multiracial by their parents, or by the parent who fills out the census form as the head of the household. This tends to corroborate the claim that the multiracial movement has been fueled by parents of multiracial children.  But it also underlines the instability of this category, not to mention the other categories as well. We do not know, for example, if these children will continue to identify as multiracial when it is their turn to fill out the census form. Lee suggests that the “number of people who identify with more than one race is likely to increase as interracial marriages increase.” This may be so, but we also know that many people who could report themselves as multiracial choose not to. We also know that how people report their identity depends on the prevailing discourse of race and the options available at any given time. Current multiracial children, and multiracial adults for that matter, may in the future decide not to identity themselves as multiracial. They may decide to identify with a single minority race, or they may decide to identify themselves as white. When these multiracial children are grown, the categories will undoubtedly have changed, just as they have every year since 1790, and with them, the debate about race and identity. What is clear is that “the parameters of self-definition have never been open-ended, for the state has always furnished the range of available, credible, and reliable-that is, of licensed and so permissible-categories in which self-definition could occur.”…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , ,