Dancing with Data, Singing with Stats

Now that the U.S. Census has released a fresh batch of data on who lives in America, it’s notable that the recipe changes slightly every time. Not just the people who live in this country, but the way we define who we are. While the increase in residents who identify themselves as ‘non-white’ is interesting, it’s only a part of the picture. More people identified as being members of more than one race, largely because, well, they were allowed to do that. 

The news that I consume – PBS, CNN, NPR, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times – have all commented on how important this is for the political future of the United States. Not only are there fewer ‘white’ people, there are fewer people who define themselves as exclusively ‘white.’

One of the vital concepts of gathering data is that people can only answer the questions that they are asked. What gets asked is essential to what is found, and how it is framed. 

According to the New York Times, “The multi-racial category, which was added to the census [in 2000] is the fastest growing group in the U.S….people of more than one race who previously chose ‘white’ on the census form can now answer more accurately.”

The U.S. Census has changed racial categories and standards many times over the history of the count. In the 1790, 1800, and 1810 census,  there were three race categories: free whites,” “all other free persons” and “slaves.” Then, in 1820, 1830, and 1840,  the government added the category of “free colored persons” to the three original ones.

The term ‘Hispanic’ was added in 1980, and that became ‘Latino’ in 1997. 

Race data is now sorted into five groups: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.  I expect that the next census will see ‘Native American’ replace the term ‘American Indian’ the same way that ‘Latino’ bumped  ‘Hispanic’ off the questionnaire. 

The government permits the Census Bureau to also use a sixth category – Some Other Race. This was the biggest shift in data collection – the number of people who declared themselves to be Other. 

Of course, the weird legal reason we sort people into racial categories is the history of slavery, and the unconstitutional segregationist legal system. Without the long shadow of racism, it makes just as much sense to sort people by the color of their eyes, or whether they are left or right handed. 

But the pretense that people even fall into one racial category is probably having its last stand. 

Back in 1994, local author Shirley Taylor Haizlip published a book on her family’s history, The Sweeter the Juice. Family photos include a great-nephew of Martha Washington (white) and his son (black) and the marriage between a former slave and an Irish immigrant – both members of the same economic and social class, at the time. Haizlip’s family history shows the color line as it turns, advances and tries to disappear through generations.

What is compelling is that Haizlip’s ancestors sometimes ‘changed race’ depending on where they were living, and who was asking. The same people might identify as white, black or mulatto on successive census forms. they still had the same name – and the same hair, and the same nose. 

Mulatto is the lingustic ancestor of “other.’ 

Race? Who wants to know ? And why? Haizlip quotes philosopher Adrian Piper as saying “The longer a person’s family has lived in this country, the higher the probably percentage of some African ancestry.” Anyone considering themselves to be exclusively white or black is likely mistaken. 

I am a huge fan of Henry Louis Gates and his program “Finding Your Roots.” He has often completely surprised someone with their own ethnic makeup, and the tales of  invisible adoptions, hidden husbands and unknown uncles run a major subtext through many families. As Gates frequently notes “DNA does not tell lies.” 

Now that culture is changing – but, culture is always changing we just need a moment to notice – more people are willing to acknowledge that race, the historic American dividing line, is not an either/or status. 

The musical “In the Heights” takes it to an interethnic Latino lyric with the dance number ‘Carnaval del Barrio’ as one character sings –

“My mom is Dominican-Cuban, My dad is from Chile and P.R. – Which means:
I’m Chile-Dominica-Rican! But I always say I’m from Queens!”

According to the Los Angeles Times, “the number of Latinos who say they belong to more than one racial group increased by nearly 600%, while the number of Latinos who solely identified as being white decreased by nearly 50%.”

I’m imagining when she filed out her census form. she probably checked “other.”  

Many recipes are improved by the addition of a new twist. I’m curious to see how it cooks up. 

Judith Martin-Straw


The Actors' Gang

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