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Page: It’s census time — and time to rehash definitions of race

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I was more delighted than usual to see that my 2020 census form arrived in the mail the other day. It gives me something else to do at home while waiting for the novel coronavirus storm to pass.

Not much to do, fortunately. It only took about 10 minutes to fill out, not including the extra time I have spent pondering what I call the most thought-provoking question on the form, the one that asks, “What is your race?”

The race question looks simple, at first glance, but a look at how it has evolved over the years reveals it to be as complicated and changeable as our national and historical attitudes on the subject of race. In other words, it has changed in every U.S. census since the first in 1790.

If the government still can’t seem to get it right, that’s because so many people at so many different times have had so many different ideas of what “right” is.

Starting in 2000, for example, people of mixed-race ancestry have been allowed to check more than one racial box on the U.S. census form.

In the 2010 form, Hispanics were mentioned in a separate question, partly in response to the confusion in 2000 that resulted in about 43% of Hispanics failing to specify a race. Some even wrote in, “I am Hispanic.”

Yet that new form omitted mention of Arab, Persian, Middle Eastern or North African descent, among other significant regions, an omission protested by the Arab American Institute, which has been working with the U.S. Census Bureau for decades to be included as something more than an “other race.”

Instead, the big change this year is the addition of a deeper dive into ethnicity. The form asks white and black people to provide their national “origins.” Suggested examples of origins include “German,” “Irish,” “English,” “Italian,” “Lebanese” and “Egyptian.”

As NPR census beat reporter Hansi Lo Wang put it, the census is now asking us, “Where are you really from?”

Although census officials were not available to explain their reasons for this particular change, it appears to be following the path of previous efforts to keep up with changing times.

Back in the first census, for example, U.S. Census Bureau records show that the heads of households were asked to identify the number of “free white males” under and over 16 years old, the number of “free white females,” the number of “other free persons” and the number of slaves.

In 1870, the first post-Civil War census reflected the nation’s growing recognition of its own diversity. The “enumerators” who interviewed the heads of households and filled out the forms, could mark “W” for white, “B” for black, “M” for “mulatto” (or mixed race), “I” for American Indian and “C” for “Chinese,” a category that included all East Asians, whether they or their ancestors actually came from China.

In 1890, enumerators were instructed to get even more personal with the categories “white,” “black,” “mulatto,” “Chinese,” “Japanese” and “Indian,” joined by “quadroon” and “octoroon,” for one-fourth and one-eighth black.

All of this was to be done without such modern-day innovations as 23andMe, Ancestry.com or other DNA researchers.

Changing times have led dedicated experts such as former Census Director Kenneth Prewitt, author of “What Is Your Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans,” to push not for fewer labels in these tribalizing times but for better ones. “We shouldn’t be governing in the 21st century by a race classification given us by a German doctor in 1776,” he told me in 2013.

He was referring to the German scientist Johann Blumenbach, whose 1776 book, “On the Natural Varieties of Mankind,” established the woefully inadequate five-race model we know so well today: “Caucasian, Mongolian (Asian), Malay (Pacific Islanders), American Indian and Negro.”

On the flip side, there are those who want to bail out of the issue by taking race out of our census as France and some other countries have done. Having talked with French journalists and others of color who struggle for recognition when the French motto of “liberty, equality and fraternity” falls short for them, I don’t think a so-called colorblind approach would work for us.

We already have enough arguments over whether the enumeration of our citizens, called for in the Constitution, serves its intended purpose. The census doesn’t solve all of the conflicts in our racial and ethnic gumbo, but it helps us to understand the ingredients.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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