Part 2—Claims Ohio birth: Christine Emba made a nice find in the proposed form for the 2020 census.
Will there even be a year 2020? Given present circumstances, we'd say that's not wholly clear! There's an election and a Mueller report coming up, and somebody may need a war.
But if there actually is such a year, a census is scheduled to occur. In her column in the February 3 Washington Post, Emba called attention to the proposed new Question 9, which would start off exactly like this:
9. What is Person 1's race?People, you won't just check the box marked "white." If you do, you will also be instructed to print your "origins." In case you aren't sure what that even means, they'll give you some helpful examples:
Mark one or more boxes AND print origins.
White—Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.
"German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc."
You can print as many as you like in the sixteen boxes provided!
As the proposed Question 9 proceeds, it also asks for the "origins" of people who say their "race" is "black." They too are given some helpful examples. More on that to come.
In her column, Emba made an accurate statement about this proposed new ask. She went on to voice a general viewpoint about this proposed new question which we would regard as unwise.
For today, let's stick with Emba's accurate statement. The data obtained from that question about "origins" are "likely to be extremely messy," the youthiness-afflicted columnist correctly said.
In fact, we'd say that assessment, while basically accurate, is the ginormous understatement of this or any year.
What sort of data would result from that blatantly foolish question? Two days after Emba's column appeared, a Post reader from Elmira, New York offered his thoughts on this matter.
Below, you see the full text of his letter. While being on target everywhere else, he starts off with an injustice to Emba:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (2/5/18): I can hardly believe that Christine Emba thinks that asking for additional information about national origin in the next U.S. census will be productive, beneficial or even accurate.Elmiran, please! When Emba said the data would be "extremely messy," she almost surely meant that the data wouldn't exactly be "accurate."
She wrote, “For the text box under the ‘White’ checkbox, the census instructions helpfully state: ‘Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.’ ”
What would I write? I’m from Ohio. Shall I write, I mean print, “Ohioan”? Or does the Census Bureau want to know where my ancestors came from? Many came from Lithuania, although part of present-day Lithuania was called Poland at the time. Some came from Ireland, the part that is now Northern Ireland, although they considered themselves English. And some came from either southern Germany or Switzerland—I’m not sure which. Furthermore, if that’s not already too much information, some were Jewish, some were Ulster Protestants, some may have been Anabaptists, any of which may have taken precedence in their minds over nationality.
What can the Census Bureau possibly do with this information, when for many Americans “it’s complicated,” and the information is likely to be unreliable? Maybe I will write, I mean print, “Ohioan.”
That said, the Elmiran goes on to explain why the data would be crazily "messy." This is the gist of his observation:
Uh-oh! As the Elmiran semi-explains, most people who say their "race" is "white" will likely have no real idea how to record their "origins," based on the apparent meaning intended by the Census savants.
Consider the Elmiran himself. He seems to be prepared to say that he belongs to a "race," namely the one which is "white." Beyond that, though, he says he has little real idea how to cop to his "origins."
In the most obvious sense, the Elmiran writes, his origins are in Ohio. That said, he correctly sees that the Census savants are after something different. They really want to know, he surmises, where his ancestors lived or came from.
They actually seem to want to know about his ancestors' origins! This presents the Elmiran with a pair of problems:
Problems facing the Elmiran:Pity the poor Elmiran! To the indeterminate extent to which he actually knows his "origins" in the sense of this proposed question, his origins are Lithuanian, Polish, Northern Irish, English, Swiss, German and almost certainly Other. But as you can see from the proposed census form, the Bureau has only given him sixteen boxes in which to print this roll call of the world's peoples.
1) He doesn't necessarily know where his various ancestors lived.
2) To the extent that he does know, the Bureau isn't giving him enough boxes in which to print all the information.
Can we talk? In the sense intended by the savants, the Elmiran doesn't actually know his "origins"—doesn't quite know "where he's from." To the extent that he thinks he might know, he would need a much larger number of boxes to execute the requested printing of the roll.
Spectacular dumbness has been the norm in American discourse of the past thirty years. We expect to write on this important topic next week, working from Karen Tumulty's strange recent claim that no one would ever write about the significance of a male politician's shoes.
If you fire up cable any night of the week, you will encounter the spectacular dumbness which now defines our political and journalistic cultures. That said, that proposed new census question is strikingly dumb even by our failing culture's current standards and norms.
As the Elmiran helps us see, the proposed new census question is dumbfoundingly dumb. Even worse, it takes us horribly, unhelpfully back—back into our floundering nation's profoundly unhelpful past.
Tomorrow: Chayefsky's Oscar-winning Marty was making a break from the past