Seventeen Million of Us…So What?

I used to be impressed by the U.S. Census report that 17 million Americans identify as Italian. That would make our “community” one of the largest ethnic groups in the nation. Quoting such a statistic might look good in anti-defamation letters or appeals to politicians.  But upon reflection, we should all know by now it is a hollow, meaningless number.  Beware the word “identify!” Anyone who loves Margherita pizza and The Godfather can claim to be “Italian.” (Were I to estimate the real Italic people in this country I would pare off three zeros – based on actual DNA and ethnic solidarity, or four zeros if you consider cultural knowledge.)

The last time our headcount had political advantage was 1986 when President Reagan appointed Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court to woo our votes. Today, we are just Euro-Americans with no special Italian American issues. Census counts have more value to minority groups in achieving special privileges and government largesse. But like the Italian count, other group numbers are suspect.

I’m addicted to Finding Your Roots, a cable show hosted by Dr. Louis Gates.  Each show explores the family tree and DNA of various celebrities.  (You can view episodes on YouTube.) What I am learning from the show is how racially diverse the African American guests are. I don’t recall one show where a Black guest’s DNA was 100% sub-Saharan African.  One example is Ta-Nehisi Coates, a highly regarded intellectual and author of an essay calling for reparations to slave descendants, who was astonished to learn that he is almost 40% White.  Even Dr. Gates saw the irony.  This revelation corroborates a recent Canadian study that claims the average African American is about 17% White.  (Slavery in the Old South was a license to rape for White planters and their mischievous lads.)

 This reality leads many to believe that the U.S. Census makes no sense.

The Census Bureau notes that there are 38.9 million people who identify as Black alone. But only 3.1 million people admit to being partly Black. Then, there’s the confusing category of Hispanic Blacks. They are included in both the number of Blacks and in the number of Hispanics. Hispanic is a culture not a race, but the Euro-American population is termed “non-Hispanic white,” which risks sending 21 million White Hispanics into other categories.   Native Americans were considered White until 1977 when they petitioned the Bureau to categorize them as Asian to benefit from Affirmative Action.  What a mess!

Clearly, all racial and ethnic classifications are archaic in this age of blending and self-identification. I can only imagine the consternation at the Census Bureau as they try to pigeonhole 325 million Americans.  It should concern us that these figures go the heart of minority subsidies, affirmative action quotas, victims-of-the-Whiteman calculations, and media pandering.

Here on Long Island, a group claiming to be Montaukett Indians recently found two state senators (one Italic) to sponsor a bill to recertify their tribe.  In 1910, a state court had declared them extinct, having miscegenated themselves out of existence.  Legislators, perhaps smelling casino donations in the future, passed the bill.  However, Governor Andrew Cuomo has vetoed it.  My take: who needs more tax-free cigarettes and a casino?

We should copy the French census which eliminated its race-based classifications in 1978. All citizens are counted equally.  Our government’s intentions may be good but the shear complexity of race and ethnicity should not be entrusted to individuals who “self-identify” or customize their roots. The mission of a census is to document vital statistics – headcounts, gender, age, education, and occupation – for purposes of representation and planning.  As now configured, the census contributes more to race consciousness and divisive politics.   -JLM


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