The “silly little boxes” the census divides us into
With the clock winding down on its final term, the Obama administration is rushing to institute changes in racial classifications. Yet with all eyes glued to Presidentelect Donald Trump and his transition team, the move will likely get little notice.
That’s a shame, because the proposal will only aggravate the volatile social frictions that created today’s poisonous political climate in the first place.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) slipped notice of the proposed rule under the door just one day after Congress went on recess in September. It calls for the creation of a new ethnic group out of an estimated 10 million Americans who trace family origins back to the swath of land between Morocco and the IranAfghanistan border. Now classified as white, they would form part of a new Middle East and North Africa (MENA) ethnic group in the 2020 Census.
A second change would affect 56 million Americans who are now told by the census to classify themselves as “Hispanics” ethnically. The proposed rule would eliminate a second question that lets them also choose their race.
In 2010, more than half (26.7 million of 50 million) of these people identified themselves as both Hispanic and white, while others chose other races. A new, single question would effectively make “Hispanic” their sole racial identifier.
The OMB notice said this “limited revision” is needed to improve data collection. Yet these changes will have repercussions at the heart of political power, from congressional redistricting plans to affirmative action plans, and will further balkanize the United States into what the great California gadfly Ward Connerly calls “silly little boxes.”
Silly in both these cases because these ethnic “groups” are not really ethnic at all. Each is a hodgepodge of ethnicities cobbled up by bureaucrats without any basis in culture, science, language or anthropology.
They bring together under two roofs peoples with such varied cultural indicators as Argentines, Mexicans, Dominicans and Bolivians (in the case of Hispanics) and Arab Americans, Persians, Berbers and Israelis (in the case of MENA). The “data” couldn’t possibly inform policymaking.
MENA would say nothing about “Muslim Americans,” as Pakistanis, among many others, would not be counted. (They’re “Asian.”) Most Arab Americans are Christian, by contrast, and include people whose families largely began to arrive here in the 1890s. Among their descendants are many Americans we don’t usually associate with minorities, such as former quarterback Doug Flutie and the late journalist Helen Thomas.
Thomas, no conservative, once herself remarked, “I think everybody who was born here or becomes a naturalized citizen is an American, period. You shouldn’t have to have a hyphen between your nationality and your ethnic background.”
The push to create MENA and eliminate Hispanics’ racial choices has been around since the Clinton administration, which as the notice recalls tried but failed to add “Hispanics as a racial designation rather than as an ethnicity.”
But after the number of Hispanics identifying themselves as white ballooned by more than 10 million between 2000 and 2010, eyebrows were raised. Noting that Hispanics accounted for three-fourths of the white population growth this century, Michael Lind wrote in Politico in May, “If increasing numbers of Hispanics identify as white and their descendants are defined as ‘white’ in government statistics, there may be a white majority in the U.S. throughout the 21st century.”
The proposed census changes would close the door on that, of course. But anyone visualizing winning electoral coalitions as far as the eye can see should consider warnings from important liberal intellectuals.
One was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who cautioned that this ethnic reinterpretation of America “reverses the historic theory of America as one people — the theory that has thus managed to keep American society whole.”
Often sold as a remedy for racial inequality, the proliferation of ethnic identity groups actually reinforces cronyism. The gainers are network insiders such as the heads of advocacy organizations formed to “lead” the new ethnicities and the politicians who get elected in the rotten boroughs that emerge from ethnicity-based redistricting.
Nearly all the voices lobbying for MENA come from such leaders, but rankand-file Americans often resist being pigeonholed. Eide Alawan, born in America 75 years ago to Syrian immigrants, told the Associated Press, “I’m not for it . . . . I feel I’m a Mayflower American.”
Alawan’s objections mirror the Mexican American experience in the 1960s. Leo Grebler, a UCLA academic who canvassed Mexican Americans back then, wrote bitterly that telling them that they were minority victims of discrimination caused “irritation among many who prefer to believe themselves indistinguishable white Americans.”
As for alleviating inequality, the social scientist Peter Skerry explains that “because these elites remain oblivious to the structural factors” that cause poverty, and insist that the primary obstacle to advancement is racial discrimination, “their efforts are not very successful.” Insider networks become “more and more an insiders’ game.”
President Obama, who has now seen what perceptions that Washington insiders “rig the game” have done to his party’s fortunes, has it within his power to call off the OMB. Many of the comments on the rule were indeed very negative.
If Schlesinger’s ethnically balkanized republic and Skerry’s insider dealing sound familiar, they should. These phenomena have caused much of the social churning of the past 18 months. And yet, the same elites who helped brew that dangerous potion want to create new spirits to toss into the mix.