Home / General / How Might We Measure Race Without Reifying It?

How Might We Measure Race Without Reifying It?


It always intrigues me to be told that by thinking differently from the herd (a hallmark of progressivism) I must actually be a faux progressive. Recently, for challenging my government’s use of racial classifications on the census form, I have been called a selfish, irresponsible, childish bigot by readers who are (presumably) generally in favor of disagreeing with one’s government.

These comments fascinated and amused me, not because many disagreed with my point (I expected that of course), but because the disagreement was so uniform. I had expected a cacophony of different perspectives and some serious debate about a pretty important issue in our political culture. But with a few notable exceptions, most of the substantive critiques (to date) have instead fallen into one of the following categories:

1) “nice idea, but utopian and therefore dangerous”
2) “if we don’t measure race we can never get past racism”
3) “Charli only thinks this because she’s white and obviously not a genuine liberal.”

Let me briefly elaborate my actual views by explaining by responding to these three critiques, then conclude with some modest proposals for acknowledging race on the census forms without reproducing or imposing racial categories on the public.

Critique #1: Opposing the government’s racial categorization on the census is nice in theory, but dangerous in practice.

“It’s a nice sentiment, but still just a utopian one.”

“Also, it’s very, very easily twisted to right-wing purposes.”

Both these statements may be true, but I also don’t think they’re convincing reasons not to hold the position I do. It’s just as easy to twist census race data for nefarious purposes (like to throw people into internment camps) as to twist arguments that we should avoid forcing people into racial boxes. As Comply notes in his/her comment, the Census has recently been used for the former purpose. Of the two, I’d prefer to be accused of the latter.

As to the utopianism of Olmos’ argument, the idea that a black man could become president in this country was also considered “utopian” until very recently; that argument was in fact used to try to prevent Democrats from nominating him. On both counts – empirically and morally – I find it the idea that progressives should avoid suggesting a possibility simply because it’s utopian uncompelling.

Critique #2: Checking Racial Categories on the Census is Necessary In Order to Combat Racism.

“Unfortunately, we still need to be able to track racial inequality.”

“The Census isn’t a form of political expression, it’s necessary in order to get a handle on what the country is really like in 2010.”

Misconceived survey methods are unlikely to result either in accurately tracking or alleviating racial inequality. They may in fact perpetuate it. There is nothing “correct” about the racial demographic data that answers to this form will produce, as the boxes on the form exclude numerous racial and ethnic groups in this country and will likely result in many people checking a box that does not accurately describe them. For example, while the form invites people to identify themselves as “of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” it does not include categories for those of Middle Eastern origin. Nor is there a box to check if you would like to identify yourself as multi-racial.

So, as I see it, the census is actually the ultimate form of political expression – a politicized expression of racial politics endorsed by government, one that structures not only how we should think about and study race but also how we think about discrimination in general. (Why is race data gathered but not religious data in a country where perceived discrimination against various religious minorities is a significant political issue? Why collect binary data on sex (while excluding those who don’t fall into either category) but exclude data on sexual preference?

In short, my fear is the data generated by this method will not reflect racial/ethnic divisions in this country accurately so much as construct misleading notions of what the country looks like in the minds of citizens and bureaucrats, while communicating to individuals who see themselves as members of groups excluded from the form that they are so marginal as to merit no formal consideration.

Critique #3: Resisting Government-Imposed Race Discourse is Something Only Illiberal White People Do

“Only white people pretend that being color-blind is even possible, let alone good.”

Now, statements like this imply you know what all people of color do or do not think or do. I’d encourage you to watch Edward Olmos’ speech again and consider the fact that he would normally be considered ‘Hispanic’ – though as far as I can tell from his public statements (and having not interviewed him in person on the matter), he himself rejects this label.

But for what it’s worth, neither Olmos nor I argue anyone should be “color-blind.” Rather his argument as I understand it, and certainly mine, is that our political institutions should be incentivizing individual behavior that renders race less salient as a means of categorizing people, rather than doing the opposite.

So What, Then?

We are back to the question in the header of this post: how does one acknowledge and capture the “social facts” of race and racial stratification in a country without reifying those social facts themselves?

Off the top of my head at 3:23 in the morning, I would suggest a simple answer, and a slightly more complicated one:

The Simple Answer: Remove all boxes from the ethnicity and race questions and retain only an open-ended space where individuals can write in their race. In short, treat every individual the way the government now treats all those individuals who choose the “some other race” category. The result will be a set of text data that can be easily coded using automated tools to produce what I hypothesize will be a somewhat similar result to what you get when you prompt people, but without any of the negative externalities in terms of feedback into social processes. (That is, many people will simply write “white” or “black” as easily as they would have checked the box, but without the government telling them that this is how they should think about themselves.) You will also get a very interesting and useful long tail of more complex answers that could help the government enormously in thinking about the complexity of race in this country. Methodologically, this approach would also provide a means to empirically measure over time the extent to which specific racial categories used by the general population are becoming more or less salient or how they are changing. And it will have the effect of forcing people to reflect on race (that is, not to be color-blind) without telling them what to look for or how to think. Most importantly, no one will be excluded – racial categories will emerge if at all from the collective speech acts of the citizens of the US, rather than be imposed on them by the government. Ultimately, this is a much more accurate way to measure “social facts” like ideas about race.*

The Slightly More Complicated Answer.
In an ideal world, I’d want the Census Bureau to go a step further, and include two open-ended questions instead of one. The first would ask respondents to write in their race as they identify themselves. The second would ask the respondent to write in his/her race as they perceive they are identified by others. This would not only give the government much better tools for tracking changing conceptions of race and racial inequality in our country, it would encourage all US citizens to be much more reflective about race/ethnicity and what it means in our communities.

I remain concerned that the census, as currently structured, does the opposite, and I stand by my opinion that this is unfortunate.

* They might follow suit in gathering non-dichotomous information on gender and gender minorities, and capturing categories relevant to combating other forms of discrimination like religious belief.

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  • wengler

    And for the purposes of academic researchers, write-ins featuring ‘American’ as an answer are white, and those featuring ‘I am not a fucking negro’ can be allocated into the black category.

  • fluffytuna

    I went back and read the comments to the EJO thread and was astounded by both the sentiments expressed and the sheer number of comments. And I guess the passion. As I understand them, many of the commenters do seek a utopia where uniformity of view is the norm. And gosh darn it they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure we ALL get there. And Census data will help do that. And somehow they think they’re progressive? Maybe progressive doesn’t mean what I think it used to mean. I think maybe they should read Robert Jackson in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), and then try their comment again.

    I do like the idea of the 2 questions, but suspect the answers would be difficult for many.

    • Reading some of the comments, I too think I may not be using the term “progressive” the same way as some of the readers, and truth be told it’s a term with many meanings, so I’ll just come clean about what I mean by it for the purposes of this post: “the political ideology of those advocating change or reform.”

  • Shoe

    Noone called you a bigot.

  • owlbear1

    Let’s drop the “Race” question all together and simply ask, “how much money has the individual earned in the previous 10 years?”

    • Anonymous

      How quickly do police respond in your neighborhood, and how many times have you been stopped and questioned?

  • arrynchius

    The Australian census form asks about ancestry, not race:


    Canada – ethnic or cultural origins:


    Would asking about a person’s history rather than their identity solve anything?

  • hrsn

    Glad you followed up! The comments in the OP quickly boomed with echo-chamber effects, not usually found at LGM. Except when people agree on teh funny.

  • Marc

    For what it is worth, I substantively agree with you Charli. I didn’t find the groupthink in the prior thread surprising at all. It’s an echo of the posturing in the Roman Polanski and “I’ll get clicks if I call famous movie X racist” exercises that regularly get employed here.

    There are insightful things that get posted here, but there is a very predictable set of topics where you might as well be experiencing a late 80s/early 90s flashback.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Obviously, there are situations in which people conform to what others are saying. But then again there are other situations in which there is overwhelming agreement because the facts on the ground point clearly to a single conclusion. For example, Roman Polanski is a rapist and a fugitive from justice. The general (though, sad to say, not universal) agreement about Polanski on LGM threads discussing his case reflect that fact.

      In the case of Charli’s first post on race and the census, I think the overwhelmingly negative response–which, while sometimes impassioned and nearly universally negative was not rude–reflected, among other things, the approach that Charli took.

      This post is simply more thoughtful than that first post. It makes a series of complicated arguments about a complicated subject. It will, no doubt, provoke a more complicated discussion in which people take more nuanced positions. The first post was the equivalent of a clever, but not particularly well thought out, one-liner; IMO it got pretty much the response it deserved.

      • Linnaeus

        I was going to say something along the same lines – the fact that a particular opinion or reaction predominates in a particular context does not is not necessarily evidence of groupthink.

  • John

    How bizarre – near unanimity that Charli was wrong in the previous post, and now near unanimous agreement with her. Bizarre.

    • Bart

      I for one have not changed my opinion of putting “human” on the form. This is childish, and not much better than writing “Heinz 57 Varieties”. Many businesses and individuals benefit from knowing the racial component of the country.

  • John

    Let me add, having just reread the old thread, I didn’t see any “groupthink”. Does “groupthink” mean “lots of posters disagreeing with Charli”? Because it seems like she’s attacking people for “agreeing with the herd” simply because they disagreed with her. This is an unpleasant post.

  • Vance Maverick

    Both your answers here, Charli, are quite far from what was implied by the previous post. There, you showed a form in which the race question had been answered with “HUMAN”, i.e. rejected altogether. Given that, it’s a surprise to find you think that the Census should be asking any such question, let alone that you think the answers will resemble the clumsy structure that had been provided.

    The last batch of comments, I think, reflect a straightforward misreading of a cryptic post.

    • Vance Maverick

      To be clear, I’m talking about the comments to the previous post, not the previous comments to this post.

      • Vance,

        I think you have made two useful points here.

        One (made by a few other commenters as well) has to do with the style of the original post as an explanation of the content and uniformity of most of the earlier comments. It’s true the note was cryptic. I think I was hoping people would try to interpret the post rather than assume they knew what it meant based on their pre-existing assumptions about what people who make such arguments mean by it. (The reference to Edward Olmos, who is both a progressive and a “minority,” making the same argument in a more nuanced fashion, was aimed to problematize conventional boxes we might associate with certain discourses about race.)

        But I don’t think the argument I present here is inconsistent with the original image. The “utopian” outcome is one in which race loses all political salience as a cultural determinant. Yet as many have noted, the idea of race is today still salient and therefore still real.

        What I’m predicting is that by generating a folksonomy of individual race “categories” we will over time see less and less conformity to the old ones. This may be likelier to happen if the government does not continuously encouraging its citizens to reinscribe the old ones. So over time the system I suggest might lead to the utopian outcome, destabilizing racial categories while allowing room for a discourse about race as a social fact on the census.

        However again you have a point: would the government not still be “inscribing race as a politically salient category” simply by asking about it. If we wanted to take my argument to its logical conclusion we instead might want to construct questions about types of discrimination in society that people may experience, not assume we know what they are in advance. I am appreciative of the many ideas proposed by commenters in this thread to that end. Indeed I think this is probably the right answer, but it’s methodologically much messier and it’s true that the policy implications are uncertain.

        Generally, I think it’s important to think outside of boxes for arguments’ sake, but in actually implementing policy I’m usually in favor of an incremental approach toward radical changes.

        • Vance Maverick

          Thanks, Charli.

          To be fair, I think we did interpret the post — but brief as it was, it lent itself easily to an incorrect interpretation. Enough about that, I think.

          I know little of how we got to the current set of classifications. But whatever the initial legislative or administrative purpose, the decision to use the Census for data gathering inevitably led to the ossification of the terms in which that purpose was conceived.

          Since we won’t reach Utopia any time soon, and we’re unlikely to relapse altogether into libertarian self-reliance, I expect we’ll keep on wanting to understand how things are and make them better. Do you think a “folksonomy” such as you envision could be part of that policy process?

  • DrDick

    I have to admit to considerable ambivalence on this topic. As a researcher interested in issues relating to race and ethnicity, I find this data extremely useful if inherently flawed (there are about twice as many “American Indians” on the census as are legally enrolled in federally recognized tribes). It also allows us to see in considerable detail the racial and ethnic disparities which plague the country. On the other hand, I am an anthropologist and recognize that humans do not, in a biological sense, have races. I also think that the use of these categories simply perpetuates the racialized thinking which has caused so much suffering in our country. As Charli says, the inclusion and wording of the various categories is inherently political (the strongest opposition to the “mixed race” category came from African American groups). What category is my son, who is half Cherokee, but was raised by me as a single parent? (From his perspective, that probably depends on the day of the week you ask him).

    • Peter

      Well, my dad is registered as a Native American, but he’s never lived on a reservation. I’m not registered as a Native American, but in the past, and sometimes still, I’m not sure whether I should fill in Native American as one of my races, or write in “mongrel,” or check white, and Hispanic, and Native American.

      Mostly, I figure people think I’m white, so I put that. But I don’t know how interested questioners are about family history, in which case white/Hispanic/Native American are all important.

    • Anonymous

      This really resonated with me. My daughter’s birth father is a national of a Middle Eastern country, but she has been raised in the US and given that my husband and I are both of Scotch-Irish descent she typically passes as white.

      I have always thought of her as multi-racial (or more properly multi-ethnic), which is what I would have written in the form for her (written in because there are not appropriate boxes for a half-white half-Arab US citizen and no ethnic categories to capture people of Middle Eastern descent).

      In the past, however, she would have preferred to check the box as “white” because being out of contact with her birth father she identifies with the race and family history of her stepfather, and growing up acutely aware of prejudice in the post-9/11 era, she prefers to present herself as white.

      However this year, I asked her about it (thinking of the census as a teaching tool) and was surprised that she wrote in neither white nor multi-racial but “Arab-American.” Which of course is not a race at all but a combination of an ethnic-national category.

      Anyway, this leads me to several insights:

      1) Race is a complicated thing and a person’s race as a social fact can change as they mature or shift their self-presentation

      2) The government really doesn’t know much about people simply based on what they put on boxes since there are many different ways to interpret many people’s racial identity and

      3) It’s problematic that the census form is structured so that Person 1 can fill it out for all members of the household. In particular there are no rules that I’m aware of about the age at which a child has a right to define themselves on a census form. The assumption that members of the same household will be members of the same race or see race the same way, or be able to validly speak for one another’s race on a given week, or that parents have some authority to code their children’s race, are all problematic notions enshrined in this particular instrument.

  • Jay

    I’ll say this as a biracial person who identifies as African-American. The benefits that come from the census are critical for minority communities. Not tracking the population – even if there are some errors they’re not likely to be significant at this point – will harm minority populations. That harm would seem to outweigh any misidentification.

    Changing it to allow better identification is certainly important and it’s surprising that it isn’t done better now. Seems they should ask some anthropologists for assistance.

  • Scott Lemieux

    posturing in the Roman Polanski

    If we’re accused of not believing that child rapists who flee the jurisdiction are heroes and victims of injustice when they’re finally arrested, guilty as charged!

    • Oh, but first they came for Roman Polanski, and you did not speak out, because you were not Roman Polanski….

      • Paul Campos

        Then they pretty much stopped so I was cool with it.

    • Marc

      No. You’re guilty of conflating statutory rape (regardless of consent), which is what Polanski pled guilty to, with forcible rape (alleged in grand jury testimony, never contested in open court). Wingnuts love to characterize anyone defending someone accused of terrorism with being a terrorist, and you and your compadres play the same game with anyone concerned about, say, state abuse of power.

      But, hey, it gets you page hits and lets you get smug and self-righteous, so go for it.

      • Wow – I didn’t realize you weren’t a rapist if it was statutory.

      • sylphstorm

        So if you drug and forcibly sodomize people who are under the legal age of consent, it’s less rape than if they are over the age? I mean, just to clarify, here.

  • I think the other critical thing here (which you perhaps hint at) is by having a box you check, the state is effectively defining the terms of individuals, rather than the other way around, and this is no small amount of power when looking at the daily functions and power of states which, as you point out, often can and do use that data (which states themselves have defined) for nefarious purposes, in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Letting the individuals, rather than the state, define the terms would be a major improvement with I think important consequences in how people view themselves and how states have to view their populations.

    I also fail to see why viewing this data is an either/or proposition between race/economic data. Throwing out race and relying simply on economic quantifiers doesn’t seem even remotely useful in trying to deal with basic social problems facing this country, unless you’re an old-school Marxist. I just don’t buy arguments that relying simply on income and other econ. data and throwing out social quantifiers will actually lead to any sense of “progress”; trading one simplified categorization for another just doesn’t make sense. Complexities are good.

    • DrDick

      Firstly, “old school Marxists” discard race as a meaningful category and see it as simply a cover for class differences, essentially the position that you argue for. The reality is, and I am a new school Marxist, race based disparities transcend economic, class, and educational disparities.

      • Agreed, but that was my point – that relying simply on economic data (when things like race do indeed transcend other disparities, as you said) is pretty out of touch with social complexities, and thus useless to anybody but an old-school Marxist.

  • Eleanor

    Speaking from my own experience of living and working in one South American nation (Venezuela, FWIW) — I think you place both too much and too little power in the ticky-box method of racial categorization.

    Since the later 19th century, Venezuela, along with so many other Latin American nations has rejected (most) official racial classification on the grounds that they are all one, new ‘mestizo’ people. This has done absolutely nothing to eliminate the structural racism that is as bone deep here as anywhere else with a history of land theft from indigenous populations + imported African slaves. Well, other than to give those few who even care about the issue a shoulder strain as they pat themselves on the back for not having a ‘race problem’ like those nasty gringos to the north.

    So – not having a ticky-box does not equal moving forward on eliminating structural racism. In fact, IMO it makes it harder than ever because far more so than in the US most people are offended to even consider that such a problem might exist here. Despite their lying eyes.

    On the other hand, you are right. When the government names the categories that you must chose from, they are shaping the conversation in ways it is impossible to escape.

    I don’t, however, think they are reifying race any more than they are reifying gender, home ownership, or parenthood status.

    As long as race is part of the national conversation – which, oh, it is – then I don’t think it is inappropriate for the government to collect the data on that topic as on any other that USAians care about or feel has political implications.

    Certainly I do know based on my own experience that no(or little) data /= no(or less) problem. It just makes it harder to see and name.

    • I think you raise some valid criticisms/questions; I too deal with a South American country (Brazil), and there they lacked “boxes,” too, but the problem was the state was still pretty much defining the terms. Over various censuses, self-determination was the way it worked, but with the encouragement that you choose “white,” “black,” or “brown.” Certainly, social structures of race also had this view, but the state’s insistence on continuing that categorization, rather than getting into more complex questions regarding race (and income), has only helped further entrench the same problem with race that exists in Brazil today, with people denying there’s racism because they’re “too mixed” even while it’s pretty clear how race and class combine to keep the “brown”-er parts of Brazil in ongoing poverty and repression (especially in the favelas in the cities). I certainly don’t think self-determination solves all (or even many) problems, but I think in many cases (including the U.S.), it’s a better path to have individuals, rather than the state, do the identity-determining.

      • Eleanor

        You could be right – Venezuela isn’t my field of study actually, so I’m not all that familiar with the specifics of how they have managed (un)classification over time, only the broad outline. And, of course, having the somewhat disorienting experience of ‘seeing’ race and racism everywhere even as I’m told those things don’t exist here, or at least not like they do for the US. Which, you know, isn’t what I see or experience as I live here.

        I am also old enough to know how much the ticky-box system in the US has changed to incorporate many different markers of self-named race/ethnicity, all in response to pressure from various groups.

        So I don’t see the ticky-boxes as static or unchanging markers in the US (like those you describe for Brazil), but rather part of an ongoing process which may very well end in a system like Charli proposes. But in the meantime, the current system has various utilities for various groups and I don’t see that, in itself, as a problem in need of more remedy than already exists in a highly politicized system of racial classification. I guess I believe that the ticky-box racial identification system will in time fade away as other concerns take precedence on what has to be a very short questionnaire.

        On the other hand – in the fall of 1988 I argued passionately and with a lot of very (I thought) pithy and witty sarcasm, that the Berlin Wall would stand for my entire lifetime. So – you know – I suck at future prognostication!

        • I’m learning a great deal by reading comments like this one.

          I’m curious whether in the Venezuelan case they collect any kind of census information on discrimination, as opposed to race, or whether they blithely avoid the subject altogether…?

          It’s a tough line to walk and I can see the value of arguments on both sides. Still, I think it’s an important conversation to be having.

  • policomic

    Maybe the near unanimity of the commentors on the last post indicates not that “they” (a bunch of unconnected individuals, few if any of whom have even ever met) are guilty of “group think,” but that you are, you know, wrong.

    Radical individualism (“thinking differently from the herd”–ooh, I bet you drink Dr Pepper, too!) is not progressivism, it’s libertarianism. Progressivism depends on a viable conception of the common good, and for that to exist, we have to be able to consider people not only as individuals, but as members of both one large group (“the herd people”), and–given our actual history and the actual inequities it has created–as members of subcategories, including (if we think those inequities still exist, and need to be addressed) racial ones.

    But, go ahead and be “amused” by these criticisms. Feign hurt that people are calling you bad names (which hardly any of the commentors on the first thread actually did), then turn around and equate them with a bunch of dumb animals, members of “the herd.” I admit it: unlike you and Olmos, I’m not A Pepper. Moo.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    You posted a short snarky entry that fell across a common right-wing racial trope. Sans clarification, people pointed that out, and now you decry them for not getting the point you didn’t make, and didn’t bother to defend before acting all butt-hurt at your readers.

    Isn’t that Ann Althouse’s schtick?

    Look, trolling our own blog with a contrary position is a time-honored exercise in stirring up discussion. Slapping your readers for taking the bait is just bad form.

    And yes, I get your argument about the relative value of self reported racial data. Had you actually bothered to make that point originally, instead of just snarking, perhaps you might have gotten a more interesting conversation, instead of needing a “Poor misunderstood genius me” post.

    • Seconded. But wait, now that I’m agreeing with you, we’ve become an echo chamber! That means we’re practically Republicans!!

      Also, telling commenters, “[your] comments fascinated and amused me” is really supercilious and obnoxious. I would rather be told “all of you are wrong, you idiots” than get this patronizing, sarcastic-clapping response. Perhaps you were so busy being fascinated and amused that you didn’t stop to consider whether any of these commenters had a point.

      Finally, I agree with Shoe (echo chamber alert!!): no one called you a bigot or implied that you were one, though it seems you’re just itching for that to happen.

      • nick

        Yup: here’s what happened
        1) CC makes weak post
        2) Commentariat makes strong objections
        2) Chastened CCC comes back with strong post
        Minus a little self-rightousness on CC’s part, this is how blogs are supposed to work.

  • elaine

    While I agree with the aspiration Charli has, of letting people define themselves, the census is a practical, not an aspirational, object. Its data is used to distribute votes and money. And both have been hard to come by historically by people who were poor and /or considered non-white (no matter how they may have seen themselves).

    Eleanor points out how Venezuela handled the situation (we’re all mixed so no problem). The French have gone for the we’re color blind, so no problem approach. Neither approach has been shown to help reduce racial discrimination or animus, but seems to comfort those who wish to ignore the problem.

    So while I think everyone in this discussion would like to live in a world where they are judged for the character, not their looks or skin tone, we aren’t there yet. And the census data probably should reflect that social reality, even as we recognize the need to change that reality.

  • Rip

    The responses on the other thread indicate a widely held belief that the main purpose for questions on race is to enable the government to implement and guide race based policies, and that by not putting down the most broadly acceptable response, you interfere with the proper administration of such policies. The census bureau largely confirms this on their website.

    Both the right and the left often seem very touchy about this need to classify Americans by race on the Census, in some cases with bizarre specificity, in others quite broadly, but with little interest in other ethno-cultural-religious signifiers that might be equally illuminating beyond whether or not someone considers themselves “latino”.

    On the short form, the only information that can be correlated with these racial classifications are geographic location, family size and home ownership, and while more information (regarding household income and the like) is extrapolated from the long forms some people get, I’m not clear on why statistical information regarding how many Japanese-Americans vs. how many Korean-Americans own a home is of greater use than say how many Persian-Americans (lumped under “white”) vs. Slavic-Americans (also lumped under “white”) own their own homes.

    The nature of the questions about race and identity on the census obscure rather than clarify the deabate as to what constitutes race vs ethnicity . National origin (without regard to whether it is one’s own or one’s ancestors) is selectively assigned a racial subcategory for some, but not for others.

  • Speaking as someone who spent several years either cleaning up or supervising the cleanup of Charli’s “long tail” data, let’s just say that that data tends to contain about as much noise as signal. Admittedly, this was nearly 20 years ago, and the demographics of the US have changed since then, but most people who choose an ‘other’ response were doing so for two reasons: either to assert a specific ethnic or national identity (Italian-American, Jewish, Puerto Rican, or the Appalachian favorite of ‘American’), or to list in excruciating detail a word-salad of ethnic and racial identities which were clearly important to the respondant but so sui-generis as to be more or less meaningless.

    • One of the reasons, of course, to constrain answers by offering pre-defined categories and check boxes is to avoid ending up with useless, meaningless or confusing data. (“Is that a spelling error or a novel racial category?”)

    • I think the word salad is the most meaningful part of the data. On our pathway to the utopian world many commenters shared a hope for on the earlier thread, we would probably want to see the proportion of word salad on the total census increase over time.

      There are many very interesting and sophisticated means of making sense out of word salad (or, rather, text data). And there are tools for doing it on large quantities of text well.

      Our government can deploy robotic weapons to wage war against unknown enemies and can land on the moon. If it wanted to it could design a methodology for converting open-ended comments on a census form into meaningful statistical data.

      • Oh no, this wasn’t text data. I’ve worked with text data. This was word salad. :-)

        Seriously though – even with a metric buttload of open-ended data, you’ll still probably wind up with most people answering in one of the ‘standard’ categories. Hell, a substantial subset of people who initially choose ‘other’ (IIRC, about 15% of our ‘others’) provide an answer that was listed as a choice. Being post-racial when your census or sample isn’t becomes, well, academic.

        • Replying to myself, because I can’t go back and edit… Regarding instrument design – Congress has, in the past, dictated how race is to be measured when collecting data with Federal funds. Left to their own devices, the Census analysts I’ve known would probably relish such a challenge – but political meddling from the left and right both often precludes such a possibility.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    A few thoughts….

    First an observation: nobody–not Charli, not those who disagree with her, not the creators of the census–is defending race as a biological category. This is, of course, a good thing. Similarly, despite how some (apparently mis)construed Charli’s earlier post, nobody is arguing that race is not a social fact. As this post makes clear, Charli is trying to construct a census that would do a better job of understanding the social fact(s) of race in the U.S. today.

    I think Charli is arguing in this post that the approach of the census on race ends up reifying certain racial categories that we have good reason to think do not line up well with the ways in which race is experienced in the U.S. today. To the extent that the census is about accurately measuring our self-understandings, this is an excellent point. Charli’s two-question solution seems like a creative way of addressing it, though I wonder how easy it would be to process the results the census would obtain using it. (In fact, the story of the people who write “American” as an ethnicity on the long form is an excellent example of how such subject-originated categories can yield meaningful data).

    But as many pointed out on the last thread, the purpose of the census is not only to allow U.S. residents to describe themselves, but to provide data on which a series of governmental policies depend. There seem to me to be three separate–if related–issues concerning this key use of the census. First, can such policies be crafted without pre-set, tick-box racial categories? Tentative off-the-cuff answer: perhaps, but they’d need to be constructed rather differently from the way in which such policies are constructed today. Second, can some other category–e.g. income–meaningfully substitute for race? Less tentative, but equally off-the-cuff answer: absolutely not. Race and racism operate in this country independently from income (have a discussion sometime with an upper-middle class African American about trying to catch a cab in most U.S. cities). Finally, should we be questioning not simply racial categorizations but all policy-making-by-classification along James-Scott-ish Seeing Like a State lines? Tentative non answer: This should at least be part of the conversation.

    Final thought: IMO, writing “Human” on the census form as it currently stands only really makes sense as an objection to classification as such. As this post makes clear, that’s not Charli’s view. And so I don’t think she’s provided a convincing defense of her actions.

    • DrDick

      I actually kind of like Charli’s counter proposal of using fill in the blank questions, but share your reservations about the policy implications. I also second your proposition that race transcends social class (as well as education and economic factors). A study commissioned by the AMA a couple of years ago also showed a strong disparity in health outcomes even if you controlled for these variables.

    • Incontinentia (if I may),

      Thanks for your comment (as well as your earlier points about social facts).

      My earlier response to Vance will, I hope, answer your last question. I don’t think my invocation of Olmos’ argument that there is only one race of humans, not many, is incommensurable with my policy ideas. However it’s possible that my proposals don’t go far enough; but that can be defended in the name of strategic incrementalism.

      I’m intrigued by and generally sympathetic to your idea about criticizing any policy-making-by-classification. I think this may have been necessary to some extent in the eighteenth century, but surely the postmodern state is capable of greater sophistication.

      I’m curious about your ideas about how this would translate into the ability to make policies that meet the needs of minorities however – an important moral and political problem in this discussion. If we get rid of the tick-box survey, what do policies based on the new data look like in your view?

  • Charley Carpenter

    I don’t understand how Dr. Carpenter would have congressional redistricting take place.

  • jfyrste

    You want to put essay questions on the census? Really? Unfortunately, not everything is a teaching moment.

    • Anonymous

      Ah, but in this case there would be no right or wrong answers. ;)

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