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?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."
Mark one or more boxes AND print origins.
White—Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.
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.”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!
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?
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?"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.
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...
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?That's what Marty tells his unhelpful friends. Earlier, he had told his mother something else which was very important:
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.
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