What’s up fam,

So I was invited to join a panel moderated by Don Lemon tonight at 7:30pm ET. CNN is spending a fair amount of time on this year’s Census and invited a bunch of us to write essays on CNN.com (mine will be up shortly) and will be running a panel this evening. Other guests include filmmaker and writer Raquel Cepeda (possibly best known for her documentary Bling: A Planet Rock) and Christian Lander of Stuff White People Like.

The overall discussion will center around “Who Am I” and questions 8 and 9 on this year’s census which deal with racial and ethnic identity. We’ve written about the census plenty here at JJP, with Jill focusing on why it’s important to complete it due to the federal dollars allocated based on census data. Marcus was the first here to raise the “Negro” identifier option, and I agree with him that it’s not a big deal. For a process that’s supposed to be as comprehensive and open to all as possible, I understand the desire to get older black folks to check off that line by adding “Negro” to the list of options.

The things that stood out most to me about this census (my first) was just how short it was! I was prepared to fully declare “my identity” and ended up answering a handful of questions to which I’m sure the government already had answers. The complexity around Latino/Hispanic/Spanish origin definitions also was curious to me. By “limiting” Latinos to an “ethnicity” the census both allows for more nuanced categories of Afro-Latinos, for example, but prevents folks from simply declaring themselves members of a Latino race. And, of course, there’s no sexuality declaration option on the form. This blog post by swirlspice on filling out the census as an interracial, gay couple, brought to light some interesting issues I never thought about.

So those are a few of my thoughts, but as usual I like to approach these cable news sorties armed with a range of facts, ideas and opinions, so please share your own observations about the census and racial identity. Did you find it anti-climactic, offensive, just right?


(update 18:19)

I just watched this incredibly awesome and revealing C-Span video. It features a Q&A with Census Bureau Director Robert Groves. C-Span doesn’t allow embeds, so you’ll have to watch over there. If you don’t have 45 minutes, I recommend skipping to minute 35 and watching the last 10. If you don’t have that, I took the time to transcribe three Q&A exchanges that seemed most relevant to our community here.

Q: Why is it necessary to know ethnicity?
A: Great question. We have two questions that are linked on this questionnaire: Ethnicity, number 8 and Race, number 9 on the first page. We think of those as combined. We, as you know, have a set of laws–The Voting Rights Act, various Civil Rights legislation that are pertinent to the redistricting process. So after we finish our nonpartisan counting, we give to the country, to a variety of groups, things for political uses. We’re not a partisan organization. We’re a non partisan statistical agency, but starting next year, after we determine how many representatives each state has, states are given the responsibility for drawing the new Congressional district boundaries. And as you know those districts are reviewed to make sure that they have not been formed in a way to be unfairly treating certain minority groups. We need those measures to implement those.

Q: [Anna from Calif.] This is the first time in my 72 and a half years on the Earth where I’ve seen a card– census bureau [survey] being that large. In question number 9, I am black. I did not appreciate the Black, the Afro-American and Negro. That is back when I lived in Nashville, Tenn. and people were called Negroid. I did not like that. That is out of character, and it really hurt my feelings. I did call [Phoenix?] talk to the lady about that. To me that is racist. You have a blessed day. Goodbye.

A: First of all, let me apologize to you on behalf of all my colleagues, and I need to tell you why that word is there. This takes a couple of minutes. Before the 2000 Census, there was a lot of research done about how to ask race, and some of the research was set up to not give categories at all. We would ask someone to think about race and then tell us what word they would call themselves in racial terms.

The results of that research were that there was an older cohort of African-Americans who in that research freely said “Well I would think of my self as a Negro.” The result of that research produced the 2000 wording of the questionnaire which is exactly what you see here: Black, African-american, or Negro.

Now, there’s one other thing we need to know. About 56,000 people in the 2000 census, in addition to checking that box, went below and wrote in the word Negro. So they both checked Black, African-American, and Negro and then wrote in by hand the word Negro. When you analyze the characteristics of those people about half of them were less than 45 years of age. This was a big surprise. So those were the results of the 2000 census.

Now I have noted this already. I think in retrospect we should have done some of that same research this decade. It was not done. There was a focus on other attributes of this. The intent of every word on the race and ethnicicty questions is to be as inclusive as possible so that all of us could see a word here that rings a bell for us. [As in] “that’s how i think of myself.” It was not to be offensive, and again i apologize for that. My speculation is that in 2020 that word will disappear and there are going to be other words that are going to change.

Our language about race and ethnicity is under constant flux. it’s a challenge for us to keep in tune with that dynamic nature, but we need to do it.

Q: Why is question 8 specifically about Hispanic origin and not included in question 9?

A: Great question. So why do we have two questions: one on ethnicity, one on race? We discovered in research–in fact, people around the country have been doing this research–if you embed Hispanic as a racial category, which was one way of doing it in past years, that there are a set of Hispanics who have a problem in answering that question because there are white Hispanics and black Hispanics. So the separation of ethnicity from race was an attempt to get better measurement on that side so that both white Hispanics and black Hispanics saw a place for themselves.

I have to say, my favorite question came at the very end of the video. A white, Southern male called and asked, “Why do you have so many questions about Hispanics?” Considering that there’s only one such question, I have to conclude that for this man, even one is too many and feels overwhelming.

If you want even more followup, check out Director Groves’s blog as well as this set of very useful FAQs on the Census website.

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