Photo credit: Mike Fox

Can we claim Wakanda? Race, writings, and the 2020 Census | Think Piece

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How recent publications on race can help us think through the U.S. Census changes.

For the first time ever, the 2020 Census categories of “Black” and “White” will be followed by blank spaces to allow respondents to write in their specific nation(s) of origin.

The rationale for the change is to address concerns about race and ethnicity by calling “for more detailed, disaggregated data for diverse American experiences such as German, Mexican, Korean, Jamaican, and a myriad of other identities” according to a Census Bureau report released last year.

The change has generated a negative response from Whites and Blacks alike. Elizabeth Grasso and Peter Farnsworth, both Brooklynites who identify as White, expressed skepticism about the new Census categories. Grasso is of German and Italian descent and does not want to think about the discrimination her grandparents endured since “there was a time when Italians weren’t considered white.” Farnsworth, who is of Irish, Scottish, English and Jamaican descent, balks at hearing the new Census questions because nobody believes him when he says that his family “has lived in Jamaica for hundreds of years.”

This question of specific origins is more fraught for members of the African Diaspora.

Mulusew Bekele, the director of program operations at African Services Committee, said he is unsure whether the “current anti-immigrant sentiment” will allow for truly honest answers. Fear and mistrust plague the Latino community as well, raising concerns on whether or not they will offer accurate insights given the current anti-immigration political climate.

Added to that, are concerns of undercounting or erroneous Census reporting. The Census has been a dangerous uncertainty for Black Americans. Because of the forceful removal of Africans from their homelands who were then brought to the Americas, and even those darker-skinned native people already in the West that were enslaved along with Africans, most Black Americans do not know their specific nation of origin to report on the Census. If members of the African Diaspora do not complete the 2020 Census accurately, this could lead to long term effects after 2020, including “redistributing seats in the House of Representatives and drawing up legislative districts,” according to Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University.

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But in order to understand the present state of the U.S. Census, we must also understand its past. From 1790 to 1870, U.S. Marshals collected Census data. From 1880-1950,  specially trained Census takers replaced the marshals. Census questionnaires were first mailed out beginning with the 1960 Census, while the 2020 population will be counted mainly using online surveys. In short, from 1790 to 1950, other people collected Census data instead of it being self-reported, meaning the race of each respondent was up for interpretation.

Young women working as a U.S. Census taker in 1920. Washington, D.C., vicinity.

Gail Lukasik, a seventy-two year old professor and mystery writer from Cleveland, Ohio, could attest to this. In 1995, she discovered the 1900 Louisiana Census listed her maternal grandfather as “B” (for Black) while the 1930 Louisiana Census listed him as “W” (for White). With this discovery, she realized that her grandfather was truly Black, but a Census taker in 1930 assumed he was white because of his light skin. Lukasik made this discovery while researching her mother’s life. In doing so, she learned that her mother never mentioned this black ancestry, but pretended to be white for her entire adult life. She passed as white, which she recently discussed with Megyn Kelly.

Passing occurs when someone pretends to occupy an identity that he or she is not. With a slip of the hand of a Census worker in the first half of the twentieth century, a light-skinned Black person could easily be rendered “White,” thus legally being allowed some of the privileges of Whiteness in jumping the color line. Historically, passing has referred to racial passing, but as the book, We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, makes clear, the lines of religion, sexuality, and class are as fluid today as racial boundaries have been historically.

We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

– by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page, We Wear The Mask is a collection of first-person essays, wherein each person writes with insight and precision about his or her time passing as someone else. The role education plays in passing is particularly striking – such as with the guy who passes as American Indian to get into college, or the woman who remembers her classmates not inviting her to their birthday parties, or the accomplished college professor who feels the need to pass because the imposter syndrome still bedevils him.

The most provocative aspect of this collection is the need for passers to “Other,” encapsulated by Gabrielle Bellot, a black transsexual man who verbalized his hatred for gay people in order to posture. He rationalizes it as “I Othered him. I Othered myself by Othering the queerness in him.” We might call this overcompensation, as he sought to hide an aspect of his own identity by expressing hatred of someone of that identity, but it is more accurate to see him as wanting to define himself against someone else, to prove his own humanity and subjectivity. According to Toni Morrison, this is our human tendency to define the Other to juxtapose who we are and highlight our own characteristics.

Photo credi: JD Mason

In Morrison’s writings found in, The Origin of Others, derived from the lecture series she delivered at Harvard University, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us in his cogently written Foreword of her work, that humans are inclined “to separate and judge those not in our clan as the enemy, as the vulnerable and the deficient needing control.” As a result, class, wealth, gender, and especially race, have been used throughout history as tools to define “power and the necessity of control.”

For instance, Morrison offers close readings of her own writings and that of others, to assert her claims about the human need to characterize others. Among the critical points she makes through her analyses of literature, are that Whites get educated into race as much as Blacks do, and that literature uses complexion to “reveal character and drive narrative.” She is most insightful when she turns the critical eye to her own body of work, from her first novel (The Bluest Eye, 1970) to her most recent (God Help the Child, 2015). We cannot read The Origin of Others without thinking of the current social and political landscape, especially given the fact that “Americanness (sadly) remains color for many people.”

On Othering

These recent publications on race and ethnicity help to explain why the 2020 Census is problematic: Americans have an incessant need to classify and denigrate based on race and ethnicity. Thus we balk when asked about these categories, not sure how specifically they will be employed. Whereas Morrison contends that at the heart of human difference is our need to classify people unlike us as the “Other,” the collection of personal stories elucidates what happens to those who are Othered – they create identities for themselves to escape characterization as the “enemy, vulnerable, deficient and needing control” (3). The Origin of Others and We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America are excellent and relevant texts to contextualize race and difference today, and it is very telling that they were published within a month of each other in fall 2017. Any optimistic claims about post-race made during Obama’s presidency have now been destabilized, as these publications and our political and social landscape exemplify.

When race and racism no longer exist, then the need to pretend to be someone else would also disappear, and we would be more comfortable addressing questions of our ancestry – on Census forms and other documents alike. Given the openness of the next Census, members of the African Diaspora would be able to claim any identity in responding to questions of race and ethnicity. Why don’t we all just indicate “W” — for “Wakanda” or for “White” — the former representing our proud Blackness that Black Panther has inspired, the latter representing the Whiteness that many of us inadvertently share as a result of the history of enslavement? If we take the “one drop rule” and turn it on its head, then one drop of White blood should allow African-Americans to declare Whiteness too, thus tapping into all the privileges that it entails.

In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois predicted that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. Little did he realize that his prescient theory would still be relevant today. Regardless of how we define ourselves on the next Census, it is clear that the problem of the color line will persist throughout the twenty-first century, which no amount of identity shifting will repudiate.

Dr. Donavan Ramon is a professor at Kentucky State University. A scholar of African American literature, he focuses on fatherhood.

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