Race, ethnicity, ancestry – and which one people identify with

I have followed an interesting urban sociology listserv discussion involving a recent New York Times editorial by Herbert Gans where he notes several mistakes the Census Bureau makes in measuring race and ethnicity. It strikes me that sociologists and others really want to measure three different things and then a fourth piece of information we could gather would help us better understand which three traits are more important. Here is what we might measure:

  1. Race. Largely based on skin color in the United States. A long history of black and white with groups in between.
  2. Ethnicity. Largely based on cultural or national groups. Has become more prominent in recent decades with the Census moving in 2000 to a separate question about Hispanic or Latino ethnicity or discussions about a Middle Eastern or Northern African background.
  3. Ancestry. This could align with the two categories but not necessarily. This typically refers a country or people group in a family lineage.
  4. In addition to the three pieces of information, shouldn’t we ask which category is most important to people? It is true that race in the United States has dominated social relations for centuries. At the same time, race on its own is simplistic. A few examples might suffice. A white Jewish person with ancestry in Russia. A non-white Brazilian with ancestry in Africa. A Chinese person from Singapore. A white person from Tennessee who says their ancestry is American (though it may be in Wales and Germany). Different people will see different traits as more essential to their own understanding as well as how they would like others to see them.

Of course, having four categories like this would complicate the study of trends and groups. But, as more people marry across groups and new groups continue to come to the United States, we need a more nuanced understanding of how these traits come together and matter to people.

Argument: Census Bureau could better count Hispanics by focusing on origins

As I wrote about a month ago, the Census Bureau is looking into ways to better count Hispanics in the 2020 Census. Here are a few more details:

“Many Hispanics, especially those who are immigrants, are unsure about how to respond to census questions about race because the concept of race that we use in the U.S. is not so firmly entrenched in Latin American cultures,” said Shannon Monnat, a UNLV assistant professor of sociology who studies demography…

In April the Pew Research Center published a report from a survey that verified cramming everyone together into one category was problematic.

More than half of the Pew survey respondents said they preferred to use their country of origin as an identifier, 24 percent said they would use “Hispanic” most often and 21 percent labeled themselves “American.”…

“Historically, the standard sociological practice has been to apply ‘race’ to distinctions based on physical appearance and apply ‘ethnicity’ to distinctions based on culture and language, but ethnicity now is used increasingly as an inclusive term to categorize all groups considered to share a common descent,” Monnat said. “Demographers have been predicting a much wider range of responses on census forms and increased blurring of racial categories as minority populations continue to grow and interracial marriage increases over the next several decades. The children produced from these unions will not fit neatly into any of the standard census categories.

“A more realistic approach may be to use the concept of ‘origins’ rather than the traditional concepts of race and ethnicity,” she said.

Keeping up with changing definitions is a difficult task for sociologists and demographers. And this seems like a two-step process: first, we need to know how people understand or identify themselves and then we need to get the survey questions right.

Moving toward “origins” data would be interesting. The Census has some data on this – I think this is from questions about ancestry on the long form. Here is a two paragraph description of how this was done in 2000:

Ancestry refers to a person’s ethnic origin or descent, “roots,” or heritage, or the place of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States. Some ethnic identities, such as “German” or “Jamaican,” can be traced to geographic areas outside the United States, while other ethnicities such as “Pennsylvania Dutch” or “Cajun” evolved in the United States.

The intent of the ancestry question is not to measure the degree of attachment the respondent had to a particular ethnicity. For example, a response of “Irish” might reflect total involvement in an “Irish” community or only a memory of ancestors several generations removed from the individual. A person’s ancestry is not necessarily the same as his or her place of birth; i.e., not all people of German ancestry were born in Germany (in fact, most were not).

Ancestry has its own issues.

Geneologies as “heavily curated social constructions”

Tracking genealogies is both a popular hobby and big business. A sociologist argues that these genealogies are actually social constructions of our past:

In Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community, Eviatar Zerubavel, a sociologist at Rutgers, pulls back the curtain on the genealogical obsession. Genealogies, he argues, aren’t the straightforward, objective accounts of our ancestries we often presume them to be. Instead, they’re heavily curated social constructions, and are as much about our values as they are about the facts of who gave birth to whom…

“No other animals have ‘second cousins once removed,'” Zerubavel points out, “or are aware of having had great-great-great-grandparents”; only people have the more abstract sorts of relatives necessary for a real genealogy. In the meantime, as categories for relatives proliferate and family trees expand, we accrue large numbers of ‘optional’ relatives. We construct our genealogies by choosing, out of a nearly endless array of possibly important or interesting ancestors, the ones who matter to us.

Those choices are highly motivated, and often obviously artificial. Because we want to stretch our family lines far into the past, we often “cut and paste” different branches, claiming, for example, a great-great-grandmother’s stepfather as one of our own ancestors, and following his line into the past. We “braid” ancestral identities together, emphasizing, as President Obama has, that we come from two distinct lines of descent (“a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya”). Sometimes, though, the opposite impulses take hold. We might deliberately “lump” our diverse ancestries together, aiming to consolidate them, using a label like “Eurasian,” to lower the contrast (as Tiger Woods does when he refers to himself as “Cablinasian” — a combination of Caucasian, black, American Indian, and Asian). Or we might “clip” our family trees, obscuring their origins so as to preserve coherence and purity. That, Zerubavel writes, is what the Nazis did with Jewish genealogies: “Going only two generations back when formally defining Jewishness… helped the Nazis avoid realizing how many ‘Aryan’ Germans actually also had Jewish ancestors.”…

The point, Zerubavel writes, is that genealogies don’t all follow the same rules. Depending on what you’re trying to emphasize, you accept, reject, combine, or contrast individuals, families, and even whole ethnic identities. The most objective point of view, as Richard Dawkins has written, would probably hold that “all living creatures are cousins.” But genealogies are partial, selective, subjective, and social. They are as much about the present as they are about the past.

This isn’t too surprising: humans commonly pick and choose what we want to believe and then display to others. Could we argue that genealogies are simply another tool of impression management where we show our best (past) side to others and cover up the people we aren’t as proud of? This doesn’t seem that different than communities that cover up infamous parts of their histories or patriotic narratives that emphasize only the positives.

This reminds me of a high school history project I had to do. For my American History class, we had to make a poster out of our genealogies and there was a prize handed out to the person who could go the farthest back. Several of my family lines didn’t go more than four or five generations back but one of them had been extensively researched back to 46 generations and Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxons in the late 800s. Several things struck me then as odd:

1. I ended up losing out to a girl who could trace her family back 47 generations. Is this a prize-worthy objective anyway?

2. Who has the time and money to spend on tracing one’s family back 46 generations? Perhaps this doesn’t require to many resources these days with online resources plus what is often available at libraries but it still requires time.

3. Some of the family line was strange as I think one time it went through a cousin and another time for a daughter rather than a son. It seemed clearly set up to get back to people like Sir Francis Bacon and Alfred the Great.

But, for the day or two that my poster was up in the classroom, I could say that I could trace my family back 46 generations when most people could not.