NYU Alumni Magazine Spring 2010


What Color Is America?

The 2010 census aims to answer the question for a vital reason, Sociologist Ann Morning says

by André Tartar / GSAS ’10

This March, every American household received a 10-item questionnaire from the U.S. Census Bureau. Question 9 asks: “What is your race?” The myriad answers to this, to be released in December, are of great interest to Ann Morning, assistant professor in the department of sociology. For the past decade, she’s studied how people conceive of racial differences, which is also the subject of her forthcoming book, The Nature of Race: American Understandings of Human Difference (University of California).
Sociologist Ann Morning has studied perceptions of race for the past decade.

Morning, who grew up in Harlem, traces her fascination with racial classification back to high school at the U.N. International School, where classmates insisted she wasn’t black. Instead, they used words such as métis or mulatta to describe her. “Everyone has a clear idea about how other people should be labeled,” Morning notes. “It’s just that those labels vary a great deal across the world.”

NYU Alumni Magazine recently asked Morning some questions about the labels used in the 2010 Census and what they mean for us.

What do racial categories accomplish?
Those categories help us know something specifically about discrimination. If the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives a complaint that a particular employer in New York City is discriminating, the government will look at the census data about the racial composition of the city to get an idea whether that employer’s workforce looks more or less like the surrounding community. So, in that sense, it helps us know something about our society.

However, I wouldn’t say it’s the best reflection of how people understand themselves. That’s not its job. As it stands, the census doesn’t recognize Hispanic or Latino as a racial category. When you get to that question, your options are basically white, black, Asian, or American-Indian. If you feel, as a Latino, like those categories don’t work for you, you’re kind of out of luck.

If “Hispanic” isn’t considered a race, why does the census include it as an ethnicity?
[The government] counts how many people identify as Hispanic and treats that pretty much the same as people who identify as black or Asian, as a group that might be subjected to discrimination. However, there’s an historical precedent that led the government to not technically treat Hispanics as a race. In the 1930 Census, the government introduced the category “Mexican,” but a lot of people protested. The Mexican government argued that its citizens and their descendants should be understood to be white. And so the [U.S.] government pulled back. They said they’re an ethnic group, recognizable for their cultural practices, language, descent from former Spanish colonial empire, and we’ve preserved that division since. Now there is talk among demographers about whether to include Hispanic as a race option, but it’s not going to happen in 2010.

Some countries, such as France, believe that collecting racial data opens up people to discrimination.
In France, the sense is that if the government were to suggest that its citizens were anything but a united body, that would be a dangerous road to go down. They can certainly point to aspects of American history that are unsavory. The truth is we’ve had these racial categories on our census from the very beginning, from 1790. In that era, racial categorization wasn’t on the census to help people of color, but quite the opposite.

The French look at our long history and see census race categories as part and parcel of that older oppressive regime. They can also point to the fact that these statistics helped the federal government intern Japanese-Americans during World War II. Having said that, the French are going to have to find some way to measure who is being discriminated against. If you can’t, it’s easy to turn a blind eye.

So is the construct of race useful?
It’s useful for the precise purpose of tracking discrimination. Having said that, I wish we academics did a better job making clear the ways these categories are socially constructed. We are not using them because human beings come in four flavors or six flavors. These are man-made categories.

photo © Matthew Septimus