Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The census

I've been thinking a lot about race and discrimination lately, mostly because of the upcoming census.  First I want to address a few concerns I have about the census in general....

It treats race as if they are clearly differentiated, even real categories that people belong to.  Barack Obama is black, even though he is half caucasian.  But what do these categories even mean in the first place?  Michael Jackson is Black, but Eminem is not.  There is very little evidence of a biological basis for the racial deliniations that people make. 

Second, the increased number of categories in the census is an interesting response to the perceived discriminatory agenda of the census.  People self-identify their race in many different ways.  You may be a Latino, but others would call you Hispanic.  You might consider yourself Mexican, and not Hispanic or Latino, but what you don't realize is that you fall in the exact same category as Native American.  The upcomming census tries to offer a wide variety of categories for people to self-identify with, to reduce the number of people selecting Other.  There are some people who self-identify as Negro, not Black or African American, thus Negro is now on the list of races to select from, but others find the term derogatory. 

What's so important about people not selecting Other?  Social services, outreach, minority benefits are all dependent upon what the census says.  Political campaigns are built around census information.  When people select other, they are reducing the possibility of themselves receiving benefits.  They are not making it less likely they will be discriminated against, they're making it more likely that they will simply invisible to the government.

So on one hand, we have what I would call the Truth:  There is no race.  44% of Native Americans die Caucasian.  How does that happen?  People self-identify their race.  On the other hand we have what I would call the practical:  Identifying your race will help prevent racial discrimination.


  1. Race is probably the most commonly perpetuated fallacy of today. To suggest that there are separate races would imply that we are not capable of interbreeding, which all human beings are capable of. In fact human beings only left Africa roughly 50,000 years ago, which in evolutionary history is barley the blink of an eye and not enough time to have any dramatic change in our species as whole.
    Besides I thought the purpose of the census was to count all citizens, not count what ethnicity each citizen identifies with.

  2. Have to say I disagree with Nathan on the point of race; scientists have long reported subtle differences in physiology (density, quantity and distribution of muscle fibers for one) as well as susceptiblity to or immunity to certain diseases (sickle-cell, heart disease). To take from the hyperlinked article above, "...Others say race can be an important marker for disease." Even if the census is for counting numbers, if they ask the question about race, it follows, they want to know that information too, and for a reason.

  3. But there was a pretty important exchange where the guests on the podcast noted that it wasn't a mark of race, but a mark of genetics. Just because you have sickle cell anemia, doesn't mean you're black, nor does it mean you have African ancestry.... Its just more likely. But these links are increasingly becoming less relevant as inter-racial couples increase.

  4. I totally agree with what you point out, "Just because you have sickle cell anemia, doesn't mean you're black..." I don't think being black in a Africa increases the possibility of getting sickle cell anemia. It's just a matter of what you're exposed to. It could just simply be the nutrition problem in the Africa. Having sickle cell anemia does not prove anything because it's only correlated. I truly do not like the way how people differenciate others by skin color. Nathan pointed out how we came from Africa 50,000 years ago(I took physical anthropology class too) which basically means that we originated from same group of human being. People just happened to develope different skin color due to adaptation to the environment. Therefore, when the government count people, they should only be counting population.

    Young Kim Phil 101

  5. Well sickle cell anemia is a genetic disorder, so you can't catch it, and it doesn't develop because of what you're exposed to. Thats why I picked it as an example.

    But I agree with the general point, races don't really exist.... but that said, I don't think the gov't should simply not count race.... I think its important to keep track of racial populations, even if there isn't any reality behind it, because socially speaking, it is real. People make distinctions based on race, and as the podcast points out, its a useful shorthand for diagnosing ailments.

    Not keeping track of race would mean ailments may go untracked, and even worse, discrimination would go untracked.

  6. Again, I have to disagree with the above argument. Almost all West Africans do display signs of sickle cell, but it doesn't effect them with anemia as often (it's dormant), rather, it makes them resistant if not immune to malaria, a converse virus/disease relationship. Like Parkinson's vs. Alzheimer's, sometimes seen as opposing dementias, though each caused by loss of different brain proteins, treating either disease with neurotransmitter effecting drugs sometimes causes the onset of the opposite disease. Because sickle cell makes them resistant to Malaria, which kills many other Africans, those with Sickle Cell are more likely to survive to adulthood and pass on the Sickle Cell disease, it is genetic.

    I agree that aside from factors of environment and habit, risk of disease is a matter of genetics, vice race, but until they require you to submit cell samples with your census survey, the best they'll be able to tell your genetic history is by your self-identified race. Technically, the U.S. Government would consider me Native American. Not because I was born in California, but because my Maternal Grandmother was half-Black and half-Sioux, making me 1/8 Sioux (USG recognizes 1/16). The below article was from BBC news 11DEC09, it highlights an interesting study conducted by the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) Pan-Asian consortium regarding genetic diversity throughout Asia. The results of the study were interesting and they found that Chinese genes were more similar to one another than expected, due to their being less generations between them than older genetic populations such as those to the South (Indonesia, Philippines, etc). They also concluded that despite less diversity in northern countries (due to a later migration), there were still many similarities to be found in all Asian populations, as compared to say, African or European populations. From this data one might conclude that even 10,000 years of genetic diversification makes a difference in susceptability to disease, likelihood of certain physical characteristics (height, weight, skin color, eye color, etc). Compare the 10,000 years of physical change seen in Asia, between, for example, an Indonesian and a Korean, to the 50,000 years of physical change from Africa to Europe and one might imagine a pretty significant change in genetic susceptability between a dark skinned dark haired dark eyed African male (Congo) and a light skinned light haired light eyed northern European male (Swede). Still, I would argue that environment and habit have much more to do with physical health than do genetics, genes are only a small part of the equation.

    With regards to what self-identified race one belongs to, perhaps the question should posed to the self-identifier should be more complex. If the census really wanted to know more about someones genetic or racial background they could ask questions about their great grandparents... 2 questions each about 8 different people in their family tree, making for a somewhat more complete survey of their personal racial background. What were their races and what did they die from (if applicable)? As it stands, that is not how one identifies oneself, so, I cannot explain that I am 1/8 Sioux, 1/8 African and 3/8 Irish, 1/8 Norwegian, 1/8 Austrian and 1/8 Czech, instead I just identify myself as Caucasian, because my skin is white (with some freckles).

  7. I think people are being far too biological here. While it's true that biologically we are all of the same race, in terms of culture this is far from the truth. People are still treated differently based on race, and that probably won't change for a long time.

    That said, I can't for the life of me figure out why this information would be useful to the government. Perhaps, by comparing the census to the employed census the government could track discrimination in the workplace?

    I'm certain someone knows more on the issue than me, and if so I'd love to hear it; It can be hard to address the morality if the reasons aren't clear.

    William Caine
    Ancient Philosophy
    Wednesday 6:00-9:10PM

  8. Well, Sickle cell is a good example again. Say there is a new strain of the Flu that breaks out, but this one hits Sickle Cell anemics particularly hard. Where do we send the flu vaccine to? To areas with the highest African American population, since that is where it would do the most good. Where ARE all the African Americans? We need the census to tell us that.

    The Census can also give us a snapshot of equity issues. Are minorities making as much money as Caucasians? Do they own homes? What kind of work do they do? Do they have access to education? Do they own a computer? If say Asians don't own computers, then it would be less useful to put information in chinese or japanese on the internet than it would be to drop pamphlets or letters in their mailboxes.