What Bothers Me About Government Labels

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I was born in San Tome, Venezuela the son of a native US citizen and a naturalized US citizen.  Mom was an immigrant from Great Britain.  I stayed in San Tome where my dad worked for a multi-national oil company for a little over two years.  Which has largely been an irrelevant fact in my life.

Since both my parents were US citizens and registered my birth at a consulate I was “native born” under US law at the time.  Just as John McCain was native born even though he was born in the Panama Canal Zone.  Our two paths diverge on this point in that I realized long ago I was not equipped to be President and it took him until 2008 to face reality.

But interestingly, I am Hispanic under federal law.

The 2010 Census asked if the person was “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino”. The United States Census uses the ethnonym Hispanic or Latino to refer to “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.” The Census Bureau also explains that “[o]rigin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s ancestors before their arrival in the United States. People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.” (from Wiki emphasis added.)

I figured this out one day when I actually read a form asking me to classify myself.  It was so irritating I actually read the attached explanation sheet.  At 40 I found out I was not “White, not Hispanic”, but in fact “Hispanic”.  And why does that matter?

The usual scree would be to go after affirmative action programs.  But, it is really a much larger issue.  So much of how the government awards contracts, how politicians evaluate electoral strategy and redistricting, and a host of government actions are influenced by the Census and other population data that use these labels.

And being honest, I am not Hispanic.  Although I am honored to have the label.  It certainly inspired me to join the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association, which does a great deal of good here in Colorado.

What is troubling is not the ethnic nature of the question and the occasional use of the data to pick winners and losers, but rather it just is inaccurate and incompetent.  You simply cannot divide people into stereotypes, no matter how antiseptic, and be accurate.

The President is obviously African-American, but he also had a white mother and  very involved white grandparents with a unique upbringing abroad and at home.  I would classify him as a successful American with a rich history.  It somehow seems demeaning to reduce all that to a check the box self-identification.

But there is one government label that cuts to the quick – poverty.  If you are born into poverty, if you bring children up in poverty, if your children bring their children up in poverty, we know all sorts of bad things happen to you, your children, your grandchildren, and society.  I do not care if someone and their family are poor because of racism, addiction, mental illness, bad luck or any reason.  I just know getting at least children out of poverty unites conservatives and liberals.

Would you rather give a scholarship to a black kid or a white kid?  It is an uncomfortable choice.  But would you rather give a scholarship to a poor kid or a rich kid?  That is easy.

I am not suggesting repealing Title VII or losing our sight of the historic struggle of Native Americans, African-Americans, and other groups to bring discrimination cases to court.  But what I am suggesting is federal and state efforts to classify people and correct historic wrongs based on that data would be better focused on fighting poverty.  That might move the poverty rate down in every community.  Particularly in the communities that suffer most from it.

1 COMMENT

  1. Always interesting how people react to the Net – I had a very savvy guy on the Web who is also Hispanic call me to comment. He doesn’t like to comment on the Web because of concern over who sees it, so I told him I would post anonymously his thoughts:

    1. Don’t you agree affirmative action has helped people in the past who would have been held back by racism, etc? Justice Sotomayor and President Obama have both stated that affirmative action was important to giving them both a chance to work hard and earn degrees, jobs, etc.

    I do agree with that – what other choice was there in 1968? But at this point I think like forced bussing we have reached diminishing returns.

    2. Don’t you agree that we can’t eliminate affirmative action and do nothing to combat racism/inequality?

    I do agree with that. If we focus on poverty that will disproportionately help most of the racial and ethnic classes now helped directly under this less than accurate labels.

    Native Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, Women, etc are all more likely to be in poverty. Ergo, a real effort on poverty would reach into the communities affirmative action originally targeted. But instead of helping a wealthy minority and a poor minority, we focus that aid where it is really needed – the poor.

    And because we are race/ethnic blind in really fighting poverty we remove the resistance to affirmative action. We unite, not divide. And all of it is based on poverty statistics that are more reliable than these bogus racial classifications.

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