The “silly lit­tle boxes” the cen­sus di­vides us into

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Mike Gon­za­lez

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.

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