Labels matter but real value of census designations is data
According to conservative thinkers Ward Connerly and Mike Gonzalez, the Census Bureau should stop collecting data about race and ethnicity.
Writing in a Washington Post Op-Ed titled "It's time the Census Bureau stops dividing America," they argue that the classifications are divisive and amount to "arbitrary racial straitjackets."
It's an interesting read. It also contains this kernel of truth: "[T]he official categories often shed little light on policymaking," write Connerly and Gonzalez, the president of American Civil Rights Institute and a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, respectively. "Groups such as 'Asians' and 'Hispanics' do not capture the different life experiences of Indian Americans and Korean Americans or Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans."
Oh, those pesky kernels of truth -- always acting like Rorschach inkblots upon which any number of wild ideas can be projected!
Let's just agree on this: Official U.S. census race and ethnicity designations are broad and general. They were created before data granularity and analysis were as sophisticated as they are today. But, as it happens, the only ones complaining much about them are young people who turn their noses up at anything giving off even a slight whiff of racial or gender specificity.
Just a few years ago, the term "Hispanic" was devalued in favor of "Latino." How quaint. In the past year or so, the navel gazing about that term exploded into something of a culture war that sped through the iterations "Latino/a," then "Latin@" and, most recently "Latinx."
Obviously, words matter. But they don't matter more than issues like the high prevalence of obesity and Type 2 diabetes among Hispanics, segregated schools with few resources, professional pay disparities, the Trump-era insecurity about immigration status, and so many other challenges Hispanics face.
Still, the census uses certain terms to collect broad data about who lives in the country. Those terms should neither be politicized nor erased.
"It's well past time to recognize that the four-decade experiment has failed and has put our nation on the road to becoming merely a collection of tribes rather than one 'indivisible,' as our creed proclaims," the authors assert. They conclude: "Reforming the outmoded census would reflect the reality of our population and accentuate our identity as Americans."
This is some seriously pie-in-the-sky thinking.
The fact that census data has been used by a variety of actors with their own agendas to underscore our differences and pit people against each other isn't a sound reason to cut ourselves off from information that illustrates who makes up the country and where and how they live.
I believe that a stable-over-time data set will eventually show what census data has always shown: The U.S. is a melting pot.
The very notion of "the melting pot" has become anathema to a vocal minority who believe that it is somehow synonymous with colonialization, white supremacy and forced assimilation, but it's just a plain fact: People come here from all over and simultaneously become more like the group they joined and make the group a little bit more like themselves.
Don't believe me?
Even as some in this country are terrified that a mass Hispanization of the U.S. will irrevocably brown the face of America, Latinos are dropping out of the identity club like flies.
A recent Pew Research Center report found that even though more than 18 percent of Americans identify as Hispanic or Latino, a long-standing high rate of intermarriage and a decade of declining immigration from Latin America are reducing the likelihood that people with Hispanic ancestry identify as Hispanic or Latino.
In fact, "among adults who say they have Hispanic ancestors (a parent, grandparent, great grandparent or earlier ancestor) but do not self-identify as Hispanic, the vast majority -- 81 percent -- say they have never thought of themselves as Hispanic," according to the Pew survey.
Hardly different from the Irish, the Italians, the Germans and so many others before them.
Sure, to some, it might seem like the census data is divisive. But the only thing that makes lifeless data a political weapon is people who use it to make others feel scared and threatened.
Racial and ethnic data, if it is collected with the same fidelity over time and allows for people to self-identify in more expansive ways, is likely to ultimately tell a tale of people who have more in common than not.
Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2018, Washington Post Writers Group