by Lynda Turet
The 2000 census marked an apparent victory for multiracial America. By gaining the ability to “check all that apply,” many gained legal recognition for racial identities which were formerly rendered invisible by rigid “check one only” rules. Many in the multiracial community heralded the change as one of the few tangible advocacy gains of the emerging community’s efforts for recognition. The “check all that apply” rule allowed self-identifying mixed-race people the ability to count, and thus recognized as both ingredient and evidence of this complex and messy racial plutocracy we call America.
With the 2010 census around the next bend, it makes me wonder: What potential impact will census data have on the evolving dialogue on race in America today? As a self-identifying mixed-race woman of color, what stake will multiracial America claim in elevating the continued importance of collecting data by race because of its impact on how we allocate public resources? What narrative will we help to weave with the likely evidence that our country is becoming browner and more mixed?
Race has been constantly negotiated and re-negotiated throughout our country’s history, and no other institution more closely mirrors our schizophrenia with racial categories than the census. It would be a mistake to think that the “check all that apply” reform fundamentally eliminated racial discord by forcing some racial imagination into the census. Although recognizing the myriad and complicated set of identities in our country helps to dispel the myth that race is rigid and fixed, recognition is not an end in and of itself.
I know what you’re thinking: but we elected an African American man with a white mom as president! Doesn’t that mean something? Well, yes. Obama’s election signifies an important symbolic victory for our country and world. However, for every symbolic victory we can point to suggesting that we’ve emerged from the dark ages of racial discord, the fact remains that being black and brown in America means you’re more likely to go to a crappy public school, live in a neighborhood that’s far from good jobs, and suffer from preventable diseases. These things are not natural, inevitable, or functions of pure individual choice (I challenge you to give me one example of an individual choice that happens in a vacuum). They are deeply rooted in who benefits and suffers from our policy decisions, or often, from our inaction on policies. Ignoring the way that people of color continued to get the short end of the stick in every indicator, whether it be education, housing, jobs, or health, ends up hurting us all because as history has shown us, when we aren’t willing to solve issues facing those most vulnerable to hitting bottom, we create a deep and dangerous drop that anyone, regardless of race, can fall into.
Counting race matters because it makes visible the ways in which race determines haves and have nots. Without hard numbers, advocates and communities are not equipped with the “evidence” they need to paint the picture of what’s really happening. I leave the following yet unanswered questions for those of us in the multiracial community: will we play into the hands of those arguing that our increasingly complex racial rainbow means that race is irrelevant and thus shouldn’t be considered? Or will we stand in solidarity with others in communities of color working to ensure that we are counted and thus get our fair share of resources and political power? So long as our communities get shuffled to the bottom, it’s more than racial imagination we need. It’s justice.
Go to PART THREE of the series, by Leotis Martin.