Want to end racism, or lessen our racial animosities? Then stop requiring people to say if they are white, black, or brown. Why should it matter? We’re all Americans, right?
That’s the point of a Virginia law suit. A Rockingham County couple - Brandyn Churchill and Sophie Rogers - joined the suit after they were required, as a condition of receiving a marriage license, to identify their races from a three page list containing dozens of possible choices, from Azores to biracial, from Irish to mulatto.
That Azores and Irish represent places, not races, doesn’t seem to matter to the folks in Rockingham, located in mountainous north-central Virginia. The fact that mulatto and another choice, Octoroon, harken back to the days of slavery also seems irrelevant.
County officials “could as well ask you for your grandmother’s maiden name,” said the couple’s attorney. “Or your religion; or ask if you’ve been baptized or circumcised.”
With “peach pink skin,” Brandyn and Sophie are white. But as Brandyn told a reporter for the New York Times, “I don’t think it’s within the state’s power to force someone to ... select a category.”
The 2020 census will, likewise, ask Americans to identify themselves by race. Every census since the first one in 1790 has contained such a question, although the degree of specificity has changed over the years.
In 1790, the choices were a “free white male, a free white female,” “all others” or a “slave.” By the 1860 census, just before the Civil War, Americans were white, black, or mulatto; a black slave or a mulatto slave. Also, Indian.
The census of 1900 fit Americans into one of five racial categories: white, black, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese.
The shoehorn approach to race had expanded by 1930 to include, in addition to the familiar standbys, Filipino, Korean, Hindu, Mexican - three nationalities and a religion.
By 1970, the range of choices was expanded to include “Central or South American, Puerto Rican, Cuban,” and “other Spanish.”
As can you can readily see, the country has nearly always been confused about race, most frequently juxtaposing race and nationality.
We’ve gotten a little better, maybe. For the first time, individuals will be able to identify their ethnic or national origin as part of the race question on the 2020 census.
According to the Population Research Bureau, the census will provide “white” identifiers with a choice of nationalities, from German and Irish to Egyptian and Lebanese. “Black” identifiers will be able to designate African-American, Jamaican, Haitian, and so forth.
The census will have a separate “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” question, as in, “ Is this person of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”
Possible responses are: “No.” “Yes, Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano.” “Yes, Puerto Rican.” “Yes, Cuban.” “Yes, another ... origin...”
From this point on, it gets somewhat convoluted. Because “Hispanic” is not a racial category, as such, self identifying Hispanics can mark any race on the census form. Heck, under the rules of the road, they may mark more than one.
“At the end of the 19th century, the government collected race and ethnic data not to foster self-identity and cultural pride, but to carry out policies designed to maintain the White majority’s influence and power.... ,” the Leadership Conference Education Fund maintained in 2014.
That judgement seems a bit harsh, not to say confused. The purpose of the census should not be to make the races feel good about themselves, but to portray the United States with statistical preciseness.
The Fund went on to say, “Census data [is] a powerful tool for overcoming the nation’s legacy of slavery, racism, and discrimination.”
Maybe so, but how about the cold hard facts?
Still, the question remains, why inquire about race at all? If the goal is a country that is color-blind, don’t questions about racial identity just feed the narrative of a society steeped in racial differences?
An answer to the question why most frequently involves the government’s regulatory needs, in housing, health, education, and voting, to name a few.
Conservatives might say exactly. Census data feeds the big government beast. Liberals, and enlightened conservatives, will respond that such information is the very backbone of a functioning, modern society. To know is to understand.
Besides, the Constitution requires it, and it’s good for business.
Have we or have we not moved beyond considerations of race?
The answer, which should be apparent to all, is a resounding no.
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.