This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Defining Race and Ethnicity in the US

Several months ago I commented on the fact that the Census Bureau was contemplating a change to the way in which it asks questions about race and Hispanic identity, molding the two questions into one category, consistent with the way most of us use the data by combining the two categories into "Hispanic Exclusive" categories. This week's Economist revives the issue, apparently because it fits in with the current debate about immigration reform. The article is especially worth reading because of the comments by my good friend, Rubén Rumbaut at UC, Irvine.
Some are sceptical about the proposal. Rubén Rumbaut, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, accepts the need for good data but says the bureau is thinking about race in 18th-century terms. Hispanic identity in America, he adds, is a “Frankenstein’s monster” that has taken on a life of its own.
The ethnic origins of some previous waves of immigrants have evaporated over time: Italians, Germans and Russians, dismissed by Benjamin Franklin in 1751 as of “swarthy Complexion”, are now, for the most part, just white. Similar forces may be at play today: last year the Pew Hispanic Centre found that among Hispanics of the third generation or above, almost half preferred to call themselves “American”. 
The point here, which is a very good one, is why we even use the concept of "race" at all anymore. The collection of data like this derive from our collective desire to measure inequalities, which are often driven by discrimination. But, as Rumbaut has famously said on other occasions, "race is a pigment of your imagination". So, we need to be more inventive about the ways in which we identify people, if we are really going to use these data for the improvement of society.

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