RACE TO THE PAST: Marty cuffs "origins" to the curb!


Part 4—An important, humane advance:
What kind of data would likely result from the Census Bureau's proposed new question, the infamous Question 9?

"Extremely messy," Christine Emba said. We think she got that right.

Just to refresh you, the proposed Question 9 would ask folk about their "origins." To help folk guess what they're talking about, the Census Bureau's gang of savants would offer several examples:
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.
That's the part of Question 9 for people who say they do belong to a "race" and that the "race" to which they belong is "white."

As part of the proposed question, other examples are provided for people who say they belong to a "race" and that their "race" is "black." We'll look at that part of the proposed Question 9 tomorrow. Also, we'll return to Professor Gates.

Emba wrote a column about this matter in the February 3 Washington Post. In the understatement of the millennium, she said the data which would emerge from that proposed question are "likely to be extremely messy."

Forgiving her for a massive understatement, we'll say she got that right! How messy would the data be? Let us count the ways:

The data would be very messy. Many people who say they belong to a "race," and that their race is "white," will have no idea which example to print in the sixteen letter spaces provided. They'll feel they don't know their "origins."

On the other hand, some will believe they have so many "origins" that the sixteen letter spaces provided won't even begin to suffice. Others will have a well-formed idea about their "origins" which will be totally wrong.

How mistaken can some people be about their all-important "origins?" Once again, for the humor if nothing else, let's turn to the formerly grossly mistaken fellow who is now a satisfied (if credulous) customer of Ancestry.com:
"So I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt.”

Growing up, Kyle’s family was German, no doubt about it. He even grew up wearing lederhosen in a German dance troupe. But when Kyle began building his family tree, he couldn’t actually find any German ancestors.

“So I decided to have my DNA tested, and the big surprise was we're not German at all,” he says. And soon enough, Ancestry Hints led him to generations of Scottish ancestors.

What surprises are hiding in your family tree?
For many years, Kyle was seen prancing about in his lederhosen. He now admits that he was never German at all! In TV ads, he even lets us see him stepping about in his kilts!

Kyle is the type of person from whom the Census Bureau will be acquiring their important new data. (We refer to the pre-enlightenment Kyle, the one who hadn't sent his $69 to the grammatically challenged technicians at Ancestry.com.)

As with that earlier version of Kyle, so with a great many others. The country is full of people who say they belong to a "race," and that their "race" is "white," who have, at best, only the fuzziest understanding of their "origins."

As for the Kyles of this world, they will mistakenly print the word "German." Garbage in, new census data out!

Assuming this is what she meant, Christine Emba got it right about those messy data. We think she got quite a few other things wrong in her column that day.

Oooh boy! By the time she reached the part about Hispanics "passing as white," the analysts were blanching, writhing and howling. For starters, though, we think she got her empathy speculation wrong. Early in her column, this is what she said:
EMBA (2/3/18): In 2020, perhaps for the first time, white Americans will be asked a question that has been lobbed innocently and invidiously at minorities for years: "So where are you really from?"

And it will be the government doing the asking.


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.

Why? On a basic level, it could be a welcome exercise in empathy.
You're offended? Confused? Welcome to the world of being a visible minority in America...
For what it's worth, we'd recommend avoiding casual jibes about "white Egyptians." In the larger sense, we think this passage is unwise, and probably wrong to boot.

Let's start with this. Will Americans who say they belong to a "race," and that their race is "white," really be offended or confused by this proposed new question?

Some may be offended/confused; many others won't be. For ourselves, we would regard the question as sad and we'd skip right past it.

Elsewhere, Kyle would print "Scottish" in the boxes provided. The assistant who fills out Lawrence's form would print "Irish," or possibly "Boston Irish," possibly citing Jack Welch as a reference.

Some will be annoyed by the question, possibly even offended. For what it's worth, we tend to advise against taking offense at every single thing which occurs, our new beloved national pastime.

That said, for those who are annoyed by the question, we'd have to say they're right. With Oscar evening drawing near, Emba's column has had us thinking of the 1956 Best Picture winner, the unusual film called Marty.

Marty was written by Paddy Chayefsky, whose most famous screenplay is the insanely prophetic Network. That film appeared in 1976. Chayefsky spent the 1950s making films about real people—films which thereby flew in the face of the other-worldly, ridiculous fare being created in Hollywood.

In Hollywood, Debbie Reynolds, playing 17, was falling in love with, then marrying old coot Dick Powell, age 50 in real life. (As the film ends, she's trying to drag him into his bedroom.) Leslie Caron, playing 18 at the start of the film, was falling in love with, then marrying, aging old coot Fred Astaire, age 56 in real life.

These were pathetic male fantasy films. Chayefsky's film was about a conventionally unattractive, 34-year-old butcher in Brooklyn who had begun to conclude that he was never going to get the girl.

Within the modern context, it's hard to believe that such a film could have won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Best Picture Oscar, but sure enough, Marty did. The butcher, played by Ernest Borgnine, meets a lonely, nearly mute woman at a dance, and he makes two important decisions.

When his male friends tell him she isn't pretty enough, he finally tells them to take their judgment and shove it. Late in the film, he makes an award-wining speech:
What am I hangin' around with you guys for?

You don't like her. My mother don't like her. She's a dog. And I'm a fat, ugly man!

Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I'm gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I'm gonna get down on my knees. I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me.

If we make a party on New Year's, I got a date for that party. You don't like her? That's too bad.
That's what Marty tells his unhelpful friends. Earlier, he had told his mother something else which was very important:

What did Marty tell his mother? He was going to marry this kind, gentle woman even thought she didn't share his "origins"—even though she'd never be able to print "Italian" on a new, dumber census form.

Originally, Marty had been a 1953 TV drama. Chayefsky wrote it in an era when ethnicity for so-called white Americans wasn't exactly optional.

You might be "Italian," you might be "Irish," but you didn't much have a choice about opting out. You'd be dubbed with the standard stereotype for whatever "origins" you were stuck with. The resulting restrictive dumbness was something you couldn't avoid.

Something extremely constructive has happened in the ensuing years. For people socially defined as white, ethnicity has become largely optional.

You can identify as "Irish" if you like and if you do, nobody cares. Or you can ignore your "origins," make them no part of your "identity."

If you adopt that second approach, no one will really care about that either.

This represents a great liberation—a liberation from the moral and mental restrictions of scripted dumbness. Just a guess: "Empathy" is unlikely to result from schadenfreude-laced dreams of turning the clock back on this important, humane advance.

This type of important, humane advance hasn't come to everyone in our society yet. Some people are still stuck with the restrictive perceptions of others, as Emba notes in her column.

In our view, we should be striving to continue the liberation, not to conduct a race back toward a dumber, restrictive past. Tomorrow, we'll return to Emba's column—and to the wonderfully suggestive question Professor Gates recently posed.

Tomorrow: Best question ever asked


  1. "In our view, we should be striving to continue the liberation, not to conduct a race back toward a dumber, restrictive past. "

    Who is Somerby accusing of conducting a race backward? The Census Bureau? The Trump Administration? Liberals? I'm asking because Somerby has spent a lot of time over the years accusing liberals of playing the race card, and little to no time discussing conservative attitudes towards race.

    1. Not liberals. The misnomered progressive left, yes.

    2. No one of any importance reads this stupid blog. And it has no affect or impact on matters but I am glad that somebody at least tries to bring up the futility and stupidity of liberals playing the race card. Bannon, an arch propagandist and architect of a winning presidential campaign, said he wanted libs to talk about racism every day because it virtually hands him the real issue, the economy, on a silver platter. Playing the race card is a losing strategy. I know we don't understand that. But I'm glad at least someone tries to point it out. Jesus, even Bannon, the guy on the other side points it out and we still don't get it.

    3. The only people who care about Russia are Jews of Russian ancestry, who still nurse old ethnic hatred for the Czar and the people he represented. But they don't have to control America's foreign policy in the 21st century....unless we let them.

    4. 2:42 PM,
      Bannon is pulling your leg about the economy. Trump voters like the racism. They don't care about the economy at all.

    5. 10:42

      That makes perfect sense.

  2. A few years back, my wife and I watched Finding Your Roots, mainly because on the celebrities. We gave up after three broadcasts because of guests going on about how wrong they were and how surprised they were. We had the same reaction about the show. So what?
    The Census Bureau is supposed to be apolitical, but he who pays the piper calls the tunes. Congress has called census policies and language into question over the years.
    That said, to go off topic, Bob has said nice things about Alex Pareene in the past. He might like this latest post. https://cjr.us3.list-manage.com/track/click?u=a23440a018c7ba0619c6f01e6&id=8c63340a70&e=5f0f325788

  3. "...possibly even offended"

    Only valley girls and lib-zombies feel 'offended'. The rest of us shrug and move on.

    Which is exactly what I'd like to see you doing at this point -- moving onto other subjects.

    1. Are we finally going to discuss how Trump's bigotry turns on the electorate? Or are we going to continue to make believe it's something else?

    2. 10:44

      Please commence the discussion. What's stopping you?

    3. 11:33 PM,
      This is a media criticism blog. The media has been making excuses about Trump voters, and trying to hide the bigotry since 11/9/2016.
      Remember when they were trying to sell the story that Trump voters hated the rigged economy (of all things)? Could you even imagine such a thing? That was less convincing than Mao's nonsense.

    4. We all hate the rigged economy. Who does not hate the rigged economy? We have to do something about it. We have to do something about it. Why is that not convincing, that middle-class people would vote for a PT Barnum charlatan to give their middle finger to the gate keepers of the rigged economy? It's hard to tell if you're joking or not. If not, you should look at yourself. What are your feelings about race? Why do you project racism on others? It's coming from inside you, this obsession with the race.

  4. "not to conduct a race back toward a dumber, restrictive past."

    That's the very definition of progress, according to Democrats.

  5. It may be that the question about white origins was added so that they could add similar questions about black and Hispanic and Asian origins without appearing to be targeting minorities with the question. They may have no interest in whatever anyone responds who is white, but a great deal of interest in which countries are “sending” those rapists from South and Central America. As Somerby explains, no one cares about white national origins (except Trump, who prefers Norway), yet the question is there.

    1. How can you identify a shithole country if you don't know where the shithole people come from?

  6. Ethnic divisions was not universal in the past, although Irish and Italians sure do seem to be featured in movies and TV shows. By 1920 half of all Americans could trace their American ancestry to before 1790, and even many of those who could not, still had ancestors in this country for many generations.

    Consider my mother's dad, born in 1889 in New York. By 1920 he had three kids. He and his kids would be part of the 50% who could not trace their American ancestry to before 1790, because 3 of his 4 grandparents were born in Ireland. Was he Irish, then? No so Irish that he could not marry a German.

    Was my grandmother a German? All four of her grandparents were born in the German empire. Still all of her siblings except one seem to have English spouses. In much the same way, my Campbell ancestors had 10 children in the 1840s, most of whom married English spouses. They were not doomed to be Scots.

    Also, when it comes to DNA ethnicity, things can get complicated. You get 50% of your DNA from each parent. How much do you get from each grandparent? On average, you would expect 25%, but the true answer is - unknown from 0-50%. You could get, for example 40% from DD (Dad's Dad), 10% from DM, 17% from MD and 33% from MM.

    Thus, even if you accept these classifications, which Somerby does not, having an Irish grandparent does not necessarily make you 25% Irish.

    Oh, and the DNA tests are not that clear cut either. Take my own test. It said I was 60% western european, 22% Irish, 6% Spanish and 3% of Italian and British and Scandanavian. But it said dad is 17% Scandanavian, 15% western Europe, 15% Italian, 15% Ireland, 14% British and 11% Spain and 10% Eastern Europe.

    Which poses a problem. If dad gives me all of his Western Europe that leaves 45% coming from mom. If he gives me all of his Irish, that leaves 7% coming from mom. Well, by my math that is 52% of my DNA coming from mom - which is impossible (okay, highly unlikely, since chromosomes can double up, like XYY, etc.)

    My bet is that the ethnicities are not clearly defined and that the testers are making judgement calls.

    1. This might be helpful -- it describes how they calculate the matches. Different companies apparently do it differently.


    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I’m glad the word “ethnicity” finally appeared in Bob’s post, in opposition to “race.” But as someone stated somewhere earlier, a government census shouldn’t have to ask these questions, period.

      “Are you a human being? How many people live in your household? Check, move on.


    4. Maybe the guy you think is your dad isn't really.

    5. Would anyone in the family want to know that, if they didn't already?

  7. A few months ago I attended a talk by a researcher at 23andMe. She explained that the attribution of ethnicities is based on statistical relationships between various genetic markers. As their data base becomes larger and larger, she said, the company was doing a better and better job. But, it's still based on less-than-certain statistics.

    1. The glass marbles and hanks of hair at the Holocaust museum are a much more scientific way of deciding who is sufficiently Aryan.

  8. Somerby offers a great definition of white privilege:

    "For people socially defined as white, ethnicity has become largely optional.

    You can identify as "Irish" if you like and if you do, nobody cares. Or you can ignore your "origins," make them no part of your "identity."

    If you adopt that second approach, no one will really care about that either."

    You cannot do this if you are black, or Hispanic or Asian. Among Hispanics, it still matters whether you are Mexican or Ecuadoran or Puerto Rican or Cuban or Pilipino or Brazilian. And it should because these are majorly distinct areas of the world with very different cultures, different languages and dialects, united solely by their domination by Spain or Portugal or the USA. Within our country, unlike the waves of immigration that came to the US from European countries during distinct periods, there tends to be a constant influx of people who refresh the immigrant neighborhoods, maintaining their cultural distinctness. The melting pot notion of immigration espoused by Somerby with his Marty quote is incorrect for cultures with continuous immigration. The idea of everyone assimilating and becoming one big family isn't going to happen as long as there exist separate nations worldwide, with their own cultures. Personally, I would miss the diversity if everyone became like Marty.

    1. You think Filipinos are Hispanic?

    2. Yes, they speak Spanish and were a colonial possession of Spain until 1898.

      From Wikipedia:
      "The term Hispanic (Spanish: hispano, hispánico, Galician: hispánico, Basque: hispaniar, Catalan: hispà,[7][8] hispàno[9]) broadly refers to the people, nations, and cultures that have a historical link to Spain. It commonly applies to countries once part of the Spanish Empire, particularly the countries of Latin America, the Philippines, Equatorial Guinea, and Spanish Sahara. The Spanish culture and Spanish language are the main traditions."

    3. You like Wikipedia? So do I.


      The official languages are Filipino (i.e. Tagalog) and English. There are many indigenous languages. A few people speak Spanish, and a few speak Arabic.

    4. Language is only part of ethnicity. Why argue with me when this is a widespread description of the culture of the Philippines? Many Filipino people self-classify as Hispanic. I didn’t make this up. Obviously the influence of Asia is stronger now, but on what basis can you dispute that Hispanic heritage when Filipino people have Spanish surnames? It would be like California claiming it has no Hispanic heritage.

    5. I haven't met any Filipinos who consider themselves Hispanic. Not even one.

      Some Jewish people whose ancestors came from Poland, Ukraine, and Russia have German names. You think they''re German?

  9. It's hard to separate ourselves from the fabric of our ancestors. Nor is it necessary for us to do so to become more humane. The fact that identify myself as a "Russian Jew" does not necessarily mean that I support every Israeli policy; in fact, I am more likely to be opposed to them based on my sensibilities, worldview, politics, etc. It's possible that this census question is not particularly useful or informative. The folks point out how confounding it is are missing the point. It's not about some DNA purity. Rather, its value is anecdotal: how many of us feel some ethnic connections, as opposed to just identifying ourselves as an Ohioan or Illinoisan.