Demographic Demagoguery: Gregory Rodriguez’s views on race and the census just don’t add up

Demographic Demagoguery: Gregory Rodriguez’s views on race and the census just don’t add up

Steven F. Riley

Gregory Rodriguez’s editorial titled “President Obama: Black and more so” or “President Obama: At odds with clear demographic trends toward multiracial pride” in the April 4, 2011 edition of the Los Angeles Times reveals the destructive hubris that can occur when one mixes historical amnesia, cultural insensitivity, a misinterpretation of demographic information and plain ignorance into an essay about the complexities of race in the United States.

Rather than demand that our first black President, Mr. Obama provide the nation with a “teaching moment,” perhaps Mr. Rodriguez should head back to his schoolbooks for a learning moment.  There, he may learn that so-called “racial mixing”—via coercion and consent—has been occurring in the Americas for over 500 years.  Thus we are not entering a multiracial era, we have always been multiracial. He may also learn that ‘race’ is a social, not biological construct; originally designed for the commoditization, exploitation, oppression and near extermination of African, indigenous (and later Asian) populations. Race is an evolving convention that is constantly being constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to preserve the hegemony of those holding social and political power in the United States. Our decennial census is a tool that helps us measure our social interactions on the ground; not our dead ancestors in the ground.

Far from “bucking a trend,” the President is in fact part of the overwhelming majority of persons of mixed ancestry who proudly checked ‘black’ and only ‘black’ as their social identity on the 2010 Census. The trend is clear. This group, which is the most populous segment of the mixed-race population in the United States, is commonly referred to as African American. Mr. Rodriguez may also learn—without the aid of geneticists—that in addition to the vast majority of the nearly 39 million black Americans in this country, an even greater number of white Americans are of mixed ancestry—be it first, second, third, or any distant generation.  I find it puzzling that Mr. Rodriguez would violate one the tenets of the multiracial identity movement, by criticizing the President for exercising his freedom to choose a monoracial identity and at the same time, give his wife, the First Lady Michelle Obama—despite her known ancestral heterogeneity—(pardon the pun) a pass.  Even more puzzling is why many in the multiracial identity movement insist that President Obama embrace them because his mixed ancestry, while they simultaneously deny the very same mixed-ness of those on the ‘black’ side of Rodriguez’s so-called “racial divide.”

Mr. Rodriguez joins the chorus of commentators heralding a significant demographic shift due to a large percentage increase in the small number of people identifying as more than one race. But any first-year student of statistics will tell you that small changes can have large effects on small populations.  The 134% increase (since the 2000 Census) in the population of those who identified as both black and white is no more significant than the 118% percent increase in the black population of South Dakota!  Thus when we superimpose the 32% percent increase in the mix-race population to the nation as a whole, the percentage moves from 2.4% to only 2.9%.  Though 2000 was the first year that Americans could identify themselves as being of more than one race, it was not by any stretch, the first year that Americans were enumerated as such.  Another learning moment for Mr. Rodriguez would reveal that as far back as 1850, the census counted mulattoes (black/white) individuals.  In fact, in 1890 the categories quadroon (1/4th black) and octoroon (1/8th black) would make a one-time appearance.  The mulatto category would disappear in the 1900 census; reappear in 1910 and 1920. After 1920, this “emerging demographic trend” would come to a sudden end.

While some writers may write glowing articles about—for example—a 70% increase in the number of people checking two or more races in Mississippi (from 0.74% in 2000 to 1.15% in 2010), and how they are supposedly leading to “the softening of racial lines,” as Mr. Rodriguez puts it, a deeper interrogation actually reveals the continuing persistence of racial lines.  What you will not hear from the likes of Mr. Rodriguez is the fact that Mississippi has the lowest percentage of people checking two or more races while ironically—and not surprisingly due to its tortured racial past—at the same time, having the greatest potential for racial mixing because it is the state with the lowest white to black ratio in the nation.

Lastly, though our first comparative decennial examination of self-identified multiracial census data does indeed reveal an increase the number of individuals willing to identify as two or more races, what will censuses of future decades tell us about the identities of the children of today’s mixed-race population?  Will they identify as mixed? Will they, as some sociologists suggest, choose to identify as “traditional” racialized identities?  Will they occupy the middle or upper rungs of a Latin American-styled pigmentocracy? Or, will they transcend racialized identities altogether?  The mixed-race population may at some point in the distant future, become the fastest declining population in the United States. Mr. Rodriguez makes no attempt whatsoever to answer these questions and no attempt to envision what our society will look like if any of these scenarios come to fruition.  Rather than project his frustrations about America’s inability to enter the realm of post-raciality on President Obama, and his decision to check a single check box, perhaps Mr. Rodriguez could take a closer look at the racial attitudes of America, and while he’s at it, himself.

©2011, Steven F. Riley

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