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Hanky-Heads Need Not Apply

Got our census form yesterday, filled it out today, and will mail it Monday. I like doing so; like voting and giving blood, it brings me the satisfaction of civic participation. (And, unlike most forms of civic participation, requires very little in the way of actually being in contact with my fellow citizens. I love my country but don’t care much for my countrymen.)

As always, the racial portion of the survey is a curiosity. Even setting aside the many obvious awkward “none of the above” possibilities, like people of mixed ancestry, three questions come to mind.

  1. Why do we lump together all those Europeans as “white” and Africans as “black” and indigenous Americans as “native American” but subdivide Asians into Koreans, Filipinos, Japanese, Thai, and several others besides? That seems awfully finicky if you’re going to brush aside the differences between Italian and Dane, or between Libyan and Botswanan.
  2. Why are we still using the word “negro”? I thought that was taboo.
  3. Shockingly conspicuous in its absence is any category at all for ancestry deriving from the Middle East: Arabs, Syrians, Iranians…none of them. I can easily imagine some Census Bureau executive pausing to worry that asking anyone to identify a connection, however tenuous, with predominantly Muslim nations from filling out a form at all. Just as Hispanics sometimes refuse to send in their forms for far that doing so will call down the attention of The Man, eager to scapegoat wetbacks, Arab-Americans (and other, related [insert nationality here]-Americans) under the cloud of ooh-scary-boogeyman terrorist fears might refuse to send in their forms, “just in case.” The Census Bureau executive could easily decide just to pretend the possibility doesn’t even exist, for political and career safety. Of course, the Arab-Americans end up undercounted, either way.

Clearly, celebration of a post-racial society is premature. Oddities like this in a government function as simple as counting heads so as to redistribute Congressional districts speak of a nation that hasn’t even come to terms with its existing racial issues, much less outgrown racial labels entirely.

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