RACE TO THE PAST: American citizen, tell me your "origins!"


Part 1—Extremely messy, she said:
Last Saturday morning, Christine Emba wrote a fascinating column in the Washington Post.

We disagree with the overall viewpoint Emba expressed in her column, But along the way, she introduced a fascinating fact concerning the census which will take place in 2020, if that year comes to pass and if we still have a government:
EMBA (2/3/18): Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed its proposed questionnaire for the 2020 Census in advance of a March 31 deadline for its delivery to Congress for review...

[T]here are some key changes to the questions about race and ethnicity. In particular, black and white respondents will be asked to provide specific information about their origins. Rather than just marking a single race, respondents will be prodded for a bit more information: For the text box under the "White" checkbox, the census instructions helpfully state: "Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc."

The data obtained is likely to be extremely messy, and it is not immediately clear how it will be put to use. (What exactly does the Census Bureau plan to do for the emergent category of white Egyptians?) Still, this change is a good thing—especially for white Americans.
Emba is seven years out of Princeton. Despite her overpowering youthiness, we think, on balance, that she has been a good edition to the Post's frequently lifeless op-ed page.

In this instance, we think Emba's overall viewpoint is extremely unwise. For now, though, let's focus on the fact she revealed about the proposed census form.

Good God! As it turns out. Emba didn't imagine her factual claim! She links to the proposed census form, and sure enough—Whoomp! There it is!

On the proposed census form, you see the puzzling new set of questions Emba describes. Once a person has agreed to report that his or her "race" is "white," that person will also be asked to print his or her "origins," with helpful suggestions provided.

It's exactly as Emba says! On the proposed census form, Question 9 starts like this:
9. What is Person 1's race?
Mark one or more boxes AND print origins.

White—Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.
Seriously though, folks—that's part of the question the Census Bureau wants to ask! The word AND appears in caps and in bold, presumably so the inevitable shirkers and scofflaws won't neglect to cop to their "origins."

(That's the way the proposed Question 9 starts. As it continues, people who say their "race" is "black" also get some suggestions concerning their possible "origins.")

In the understatement of the millennium, Emba says the data obtained in this manner will likely be "extremely messy." Beyond that, she sensibly says she can't quite imagine what use will be made of these millions of messy statements.

Emba goes on to voice some views about the possible benefits of this overall effort; on balance, we think her outlook is unwise. But good lord! For now, let's stick with the hopelessly muddy, throwback questions the Bureau wants to ask.

For starters, we think it's sad, though traditional, that every respondent will be asked to say that he or she belongs to a "race."

Do people really belong to "races," let along to the "races" the Census Bureau conjures? We'd be inclined to say that they don't—but we'll leave that point for another day.

In our view, it's sad that everyone will be prompted to say that they belong to a "race." We think it's insane that everyone will be asked to move beyond his or her "race" to the question of his or her "origins."

Two days after Emba's column appeared, the Post published a letter from Elmira, New York. The letter stated some basic objections to this proposed new question—objections we think are sound.

These objections take us beyond Emba's vast understatement, in which she says the data concerning "origins" will be "extremely messy." We'll review that letter tomorrow. For today, let's list a few of the many questions raised by the Census Bureau's proposed new Question 9:
Question 1:
Do you and your various fellow citizens each belong to a "race?"

Question 2:

If we say that someone belongs to a "race," what the heck do we mean?
Those would be our first two questions concerning the proposed Question 9. We'll also ask, and answer, one additional question:

Is the Census Bureau's proposed Question 9 a race to the bottom? Possibly not, but it clearly represents a type of race towards the past.

Tomorrow: Inevitably, messy all the way down


  1. No, people don't really belong to a 'race'.

    "Is the Census Bureau's proposed Question 9 a race to the bottom?"

    Well, it seems that it's the natural next step for dividing the population into smaller segments, each one (potentially) with grievances against all others. Divide and rule, lib-zombiism in action.

    1. Certainly your Kremlin paymasters know how to play divide and rule !

    2. "Divide and rule, lib-zombiism in action."
      Mao likes Dreamers, 'cause Dreamers can make you mine.

    3. Um, Mao, last time I checked, the Trump Administration runs the Census Bureau, and not lib-zombies.

    4. Are zombies a distinct race or are they in a transitional state, sort of like adolescence?

  2. Somerby's references to the past are apt. Before the biologically based idea of race was advanced, people thought of race in terms of these nationalities. Hungarians and Italians were considered distinct races and the term race was applied to them in that sense. The Irish were a race. So this isn't an advance into greater precision, it is a retreat to categories of pre-WWII 20th Century thinking.

    Remember the film Love Story? The relationship is doomed not only because the girl is poor (not an insurmountable barrier) but because she is Italian and thus unacceptable to the boy's WASP parents.

    I see this revival as a symptom of the alt-Right's white supremacist views, now being implemented by our President. Melania recently visited the Holocaust Museum. There she would have seen the semi-scientific paraphernalia used to classify degrees of Aryan racial features, including color of eyes and hair. Blue is better than green or hazel, blond is better than light brown and pale white is better than whitish skin. Nationality-based racism isn't only about black versus white but also about Aryan Northern European versus Southern European or Middle Eastern. Remember that Hitler planned and succeeded in enslaving Eastern Europeans and French people to work in forced labor to support the Reich, he moved people around in trains to segregate these countries by nationality in a massive relocation program, to make Germany pure.

    We may think this stuff died with the victory of the Allies in WWII, but we are living through a revival of Nazi fascist thinking and the first step toward implementing such goals is good record-keeping, classifying people for later relocation, much as Trump is deporting people and limiting immigration to make America pure again.

    There is no good reason for such a question on our census forms other than discriminating against certain groups in favor of others. People may be proud to state their national heritage, especially if they've just discovered it through some DNA kit, but they need to consider what the purpose of such a question might be. I cannot think of any that would be good for our country.

    1. I think all "white" people who have any Latin blood in them at all should say "Mexico" or "Spain.

      What if you're lots of places? What an awful and -yes-- suggestive question.

    2. Where did the people in Spain originally come from? Some from Rome, some from North Africa, some from Gaul.

  3. The statistical meaning of the term "messy data" and Somerby's use of the word "messy" are different.

    According to Hafley & Lewis: "To the statistician, messy data would be any data for which his assumptions about model and analysis are not justified. But perhaps the best general definition is a simple functional one: Data are messy when it is apparently impossible to obtain clearly interpretable information from them."


    Census questions are designed so that large-scale statistical analyses can be performed on them, to obtain information useful for business planning and government decision-making. Emba is concerned that the format of the question will not permit this kind of statistical analysis, thus the question will be meaningless or useless.

    That isn't what Somerby means at all. Somerby means that our concept of race is so fuzzy that people will be unable to give coherent answers. He questions the validity of the concept of race and doesn't grapple with nationality or "origin" at all. He doesn't understand that these are two separate problems. A measurement can be consistent and reliable and still be measuring nothing useful. Emba is worried about the consistency and reliability of the measurement. Somerby should be worried about its usefulness, except he doesn't take that step -- he only hints at it, which is how he deals with such questions. He will never tell us what he thinks about race, only tell us that we don't know how to think about it.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with gathering data. There is a great deal wrong with misuse of data. We should be asking why such a question is being proposed and what people plan to do with their analysis. Why does our government suddenly care about people's origins?

  4. What? An entire Howler post without the word "liberal" showing up?

  5. Well now we have DNA tests to tell us our origins, but how many people can claim one? In Wisconsin I had a boss who was 3rd generation American and yet also pure Norwegian. As in, all 8 of his great grandparents were from Norway.

    Way back in 1928, my dad's parents got married in Iowa and the marriage license asked about ethnicity to which both his parents said they were German. Yet if you look at grandpa's great grandparents you have all but one born in the United States, and ethnicity is German/Swiss, French Huguenot, Scotland, Scotland, England, England, Ireland, and somebody named Miller of unknown ethnicity, probably English.

    Out of that mess, he identified himself as a German even though he looks 75% British Isles to me. Well, his surname is German, and for that reason even his grandson (myself) considered himself a Kraut in spite of his Irish (?) mother.

    Dad's mom's ancestry is simpler. Her four grandparents are Swiss, Swiss, German, German. Well, the Swiss were German speaking (sort of) (meaning a person from Berlin might have some trouble with their Schweitzerdeutsch.)

    Out of that pair of supposed Germans, dad's DNA test says he is about 15% German.

    The messy part is that people are not going to know how to classify their mixed ancestry. Only my old boss will have it easy unlike the rest of us mudbloods.

    1. Well, as Caesar noted in a previous post, we're all actually African in our origins. Of course, “Africa” is a human name given to that continent, same goes for those who identify as Italian, Irish German etc.

      Taking pride in one’s “race” is tribal to the core, and even affects this Scottish lad, even as I understand that the reason it does is the primitive need for tribal identity. Even as I know that I’m part of only one race, the human one.

      Seeing as all boundaries between us are mainly political ones, be they geographical or ideological, don’t expect this to ever change. Tribalism is in our human DNA, much as Bob laments it. It seems nearly inescapable. This new census can only exacerbate our inability to get beyond it.


    2. Leroy wrote: "Taking pride in one’s “race” is tribal to the core

      I'd modify that to say "Taking pride in one’s “subgroup” is tribal to the core. But, which subgroup does one primarily identify with? There's my religious group, my political group, my economic group, my age group, my math nerds group, fellow alumni, groups who share my hobbies, etc. etc. E.g., I take pride in Thomas Sowell, because for me skin color is not our primary defining features.

      I hate defining the primary "race" as white, black, Asian, Native American, etc because it's the government officially telling us that these things are our primary defining features. And, extending that to country of family origin makes it worse yet.

    3. Then you and I agree that the concept of race is bogus. Though there is a rising, and never fully thwarted, belief in the primacy of this idea, and it affects all of the subgroups you mentioned.

      Racial tribalism is never going away, until we get over the idea of race. And by “we” I mean humanity at large. But since it seems so fundamental to the conceptions of so many, and the science in this regard is not known or accepted by them (hell, some people use the Bible to prove the inferiority of black people) I’m not holding my breath, DinC. We’re all imperfect, and as a species, the imperfections are magnified. Our greatest achievement as a species is representative democracy, and that’s going down the drain as I write. Has been for a long time in this Nation, another human construct. And the msm is not helping, which seems to be the cornerstone of this site.


  6. Do you and your various fellow citizens each belong to a "race?"

    Obviously, yes. Everyone knows this, even though the exact definition isn't obvious. That said, polling on these sorts of questions tend to square extremely well with genetic testing.

    A question like this is like asking whether wavelengths of light belong to "colors." You can be philosophic about it, I suppose, but it's just masturbation.

  7. Can all of us who are of Irish descent take a vote and kick Somerby out of our club?

  8. There is only 1 race: the human race. Whenever I'm asked, that's how I classify myself.

  9. Definitive census catagories can be extended to immigration policies. What’s next? A return to Mongolian and Mulatto? Perhaps ”shithole” and “other”?

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