I received my census form, dutifully filled it out and mailed it off. In the blank reserved for racial classification I wrote in capital letters, “HUMAN.” It was widely reported that for racial classification President Obama checked the box marked “African-American” as opposed to writing in “mixed race,” which would have been more factually correct, but wouldn’t have played well with black voters (or so he supposed). It is my considered opinion that if the President can make a political statement when filling out his census form I can as well. Obama chose to shore up his street cred; I chose to give voice to the conviction that this country will never move beyond race so long as the federal government continues to be in the business of race.
Yet we remain consumed even if we can no longer actually define what race is. What we lose in our attempts is any sense of ourselves as individuals created with unique gifts to offer an expectant world.
Is race in America a matter of pigmentation? DNA? Given the fact that most of us are “mutts,” how dark or light must one be and which ethnic distinction predominates? Our President is bi-racial and was raised by his white mother and grandmother, yet he describes his race as African-American. His choice seems to suggest that race is a matter of opinion; a man is whatever he believes himself to be. How then does one determine the authentic from the merely delusional? My friend Amy is married to a black man; she has black children and lives in a black neighborhood. She earnestly asks why she is precluded from becoming a member of the sisterhood. And what of all the blond, blue eyed “Native Americans” and their cousins in the black community that “have a little Cherokee on their grandmothers side of the family.” Are their opinions not as valid as our President’s? Are we prepared to give moral credence to the “one drop” rule of days gone by? Have we now determined that absent the idea of racial supremacy the one drop rule is in fact not racist and is civilly acceptable?
Perhaps race in America is now defined by ones political attitudes(I was recently referred to as a “Republicoon.” Members of the tolerant and non-racist left tend toward a particularly odious form of invective. But I digress.) This was overheard at a dinner following the 2008 presidential election: “You know I’m black. And I can prove it!” Thus she opened her sweater revealing her Barack Obama t-shirt.
In 1790 the only reason for counting race was the continued presence of the evil institution, slavery.
Article 1: section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the clause directing the taking of the census, contains the infamous 3/5ths compromise. It reads in part, “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned…by adding the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.” That ratio was eliminated following the abolition of slavery and the ratification of the 14th amendment.
So why does racial counting continue?
According to the Census Bureau’s website the race data on the census form is needed in order to “determine congressional, local and state voting districts…to access fairness of employment practices, to monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education and to plan and obtain funds for public services.”
As the Queen of soul was heard to say, “Who’s zoomin’ who?”
The census does not ask for a job description. The racial data in the census is useless in determining if I, as an individual, have not been treated fairly by my employer. However, it is essential in determining statistical representation. We must also ask ourselves if nurturing a racial spoils system where public dollars are handed out based not on need or merit but race will move us forward in our efforts to become post racial or hold us back. And if we can’t even be certain of how to define race are our measures accurate anyway?
The primary purpose of the census is in apportioning congressional districts. The importance of race in these calculations continues to be used to gerrymander those districts and concentrate political power. At a certain time in our history the idea that black and brown people needed representation that looked like them was not outrageous. Are such ideas still relevant in 2010? Only if you continue to believe that black interests are best served by black and democratic representation. 75% of black Americans live under 7 layers of democratic representation: school board, county board, city council, mayor, state representative, state senate and congressional representative. Toss in police chief, school superintendant and in many instances Governor and it becomes crystal clear why so many black people are angry with Republicans.
It may be that race is a kind of merging of what we believe about ourselves and what the world believes about us. But realistically -- in a post racial America-- how does one fit such a large and complex idea into a small box on a federal census form?