24 VIEWS is a project by Tiffany Lin that uses Census race data to investigate the history of racial classification in the United States.

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This program is supported by University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s Department of Art and funded in part by the Forgotten Song Foundation Research Award and a grant from Nevada Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Mark

PERSONAL REMARKS




I’d like to start a discussion around racial classification’s eventual collapse.

This sounds trite in a hyperconnected landscape where we are plugged into a seemingly endless discourse on American racism, but as with all matters of political reality, we can never fully disengage from history and its consequences.

Discussions on race are never easy because for most of American history, not everyone was given a seat at the table. Now, it appears we are sitting a little closer, but the chasm between us remains vast. The colonial project – the white man’s burden to civilize us from our latent barbarism – was never fully laid to rest. It has in fact metastasized beyond comprehension in quieter ways. 18th century ideology predicated on “biological determinants” of superiority set into motion cascades of violence, exploitation, and cultural erasure that is still felt acutely in our most vulnerable communities across the world. In the United States, our shame is laid naked and bare across our cities; look only to the events of summer 2020 that moved people to protest in defense of Black life – the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and unfortunately many others – victims of police violence supported by systemic racism calcified into the foundation of American life. In sharp comparison, look to the events of January 6th and the blithe treatment of white insurrectionists storming the Capitol Building by force. Generations of race-based violence, segregation, and economic divestment make it clear that “the problem of the color line,” as described by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, is alive and well.

The issue of the color line is first and foremost a question of language. Language attempts to but never fully captures the magnitude of racialized existence. Writers and theorists – from Frederick Douglass to James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates – have combined urgent social critique with visceral, personal experience to expose the damning evidence of reparations unmet and humanity denied across all sectors of American life. However, language, with its infinite combinations of subject-predicate-object, can do little to bring the dead back to life. Yet I continue to believe in language’s ability to influence our understanding of the world. We shape our language, and our language shapes us. Through reciprocity, language leads to our remand and emancipation. Is it possible to alter the entire discourse on race through a linguistic shift in racial categories alone? Would this lead to greater equity or simply a new form of segregation? Would it lend credence to platitudes on “color blindness” and the erasure of past atrocities? And what then of democracy’s lifeblood, when practical policy change is defined by demographic data and racial disparities?

The issue is as much sociopolitical as it is ontological. To live in America as a person of color is to have an intuitive understanding of one’s proximity to, or occupation of, whiteness. In other words, it is an awareness of one’s distance from power.

From Carl Linnaeus’ and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s 18th century theories on racial taxonomy to current race and ethnicity standards adopted by US Office of Management and Budget’s Directive 15, which now form the basis for categories used across federal data collection systems, the language around race remains fraught because the categories themselves are born from a colonial economic project fueled by white supremacy. Look only to the original US Constitution drafted in 1787, where the decennial census is first established in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The three-fifths compromise. In other words, how to codify racism by leveraging disenfranchised slaves and indigenous peoples for economic gain while denying their humanity. Such blatant manipulation of numbers to support the status quo persisted well into the 19th and 20th centuries – for instance, the racialization of nationality leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the abuse of Census data in 1940 to locate and incarcerate Japanese-Americans during WWII. In 1978, the Census Bureau established a 72-year moratorium on the release of any personally identifiable data. Despite this, distrust of government bodies persists among “hard-to-count” populations given the appalling historical abuses against communities of color. Prior to the deployment of the 2020 Census count, the administration proposed including a citizenship question (removed in 1950) which was largely perceived as a targeted attack against undocumented peoples by Trump’s nationalist and anti-immigration agenda. Any compromise in the count has the potential to alter redistricting and by consequence, apportionment in the House and the distribution of federal funds at the state, county, and city level. Loss of Congressional seats translates to loss of funds to support federal programs, including Medicare, SNAP, WIC, Pell Grants, public housing, infrastructure, and other assistance-based programs.

If the goal of the Census Bureau is to achieve an accurate headcount of all residents, why account for race at all? The argument is that ‘neutral’ data will lead to advancements in civil rights and the guarantee of equal opportunity. However, what happens when the categories themselves no longer feel relevant to their constituencies? Since 1970, the Census has counted the Latinx population under a separate question on ethnicity, which asks “Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish Origin?” This leads to a rather awkward semantic quandary around language and Latin America’s colonial past, questions too complex to capture in a ten-point survey. Between 2000 and 2010, the Census noticed a drastic shift in how Latinx-identified individuals responded. After completing the ethnicity question, Latinx respondents now select “Some other race” and write in their country of heritage instead of selecting White. This tendency is also reflected among some Near and Middle Eastern respondents’ wishes to distance themselves from whiteness, as they feel it does not accurately represent their experience. And what of multiracial populations, who were only given the option to select more than one race in 2000? Does this not belie the accuracy of previous counts, given our country’s historical infatuation with the one-drop rule?

The year is 2021 and we have made progress in representation and in advocating for more accurate language to describe ourselves. But what happens to said language if Census projections hold true, that by 2040 America will be a majority-minority country, in which more than half of Americans will belong to a minority group? What of multiracial respondents, whose population is expected to double to 11.3% by 2060? And what is implied when multiracial individuals are broadly categorized as minority or non-white Hispanic? How can any categorical language encapsulate our experience and the granularity of our lived experiences?

When I first started working on 24 VIEWS in summer 2019 during a month-long residency at Wassaic Project, my point of investigation was not so complicated. Over the course of a year, as I started my new position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at UNLV while entering the worldwide lockdown, I had more time to reflect on the scope of my project. In March 2020, I had the opportunity to test out a related educational workshop at a local high school before everything shut down. I took the opportunity to consider new platforms for viewers to diffuse their ideas on the future uses of racial classifications.

While I believe the curriculum was solid, it was still an experiment and a work in progress. I had rushed in, eager to talk to people, without reflecting more on the theoretical underpinnings and ramifications of this project. As the world transitions back into some semblance of normalcy, I am taking the opportunity to open up a nationwide conversation.

I invite you – dear reader, fellow dreamer, compatriot, or contrarian – to speculate with me. Send me your most radical inquiries. Push back against me. What will be the future of our racial classification system? Will a new system replace it that captures more nuance, with an emphasis on socioeconomics? Will it serve us well, or will it recreate the same inequity? Will it become obsolete as we become increasingly multiracial? Are ‘colorblind’ politics possible or even responsible given our country’s origins in racist practice? Is the human brain capable of destabilizing heuristic views on race based purely on phenotype?

Like most things, I’m not sure what will come of this exercise. But at the very least, allow it to be a gathering of ideas to reimagine the names we call ourselves in the long game of America’s story.

In hopeful earnest and solidarity,

TIFFANY LIN
24 VIEWS, PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR
VISITING ASSISTANT PROFESSOR
DEPARTMENT OF ART
UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, LAS VEGAS




REFERENCES


Anderson, Margo J. The American Census: A Social History. Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Battle-Baptiste, Whitney and Britt Rusert, eds. W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. The W.E.B. Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; Hudson: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018.

The Daily Podcast, “The President and the Census.” The New York Times, July 11, 2019, (link)

Dawkins, Marcia Alesan. Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012.

Demby, Gene, “What Is Your Race? For Millions of Americans, A Shifting Answer.” NPR: Code Switch, June 9, 2014. (link)

Ennis, Sharon R., Merarys Rios-Vargas, and Nora G. Albert, “The Hispanic Population: 2010,” 2010 Census Briefs, C2010BR-04, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, May 2011. (link)

Humes, Karen R., Nicholas A. Jones, and Roberto R. Ramirez, “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010,” 2010 Census Briefs, C2010BR-02, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, March 2011. (link)

Lopez, Mark Hugo, Jens Manuel Krogstad, and Jeffrey S. Passel. “Who is Hispanic?” Pew Research Center. September 15, 2020. (link)

Perez, Anthony Daniel, and Charles Hirschman. "The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the US Population: Emerging American Identities." Population and Development Review 35, no. 1 (2009): 1-51. (link)

Pew Research Center. “What Census calls us,” February 6, 2020. (link)

Pinder, Sherrow O. Colorblindness, Post-Raciality, and Whiteness in the United States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Prewitt, Kenneth. What is your race? : The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Schor, Paul. Counting Americans: How the US Census Classified the Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Wang, Hansi Lo, “Census Fight: The Battle Over The Citizenship Question,” July 2019. (link)

Vespa, Jonathan, Lauren Medina, and David M. Armstrong, “Demographic Turning Points for the United States: Population Projections for 2020 to 2060,” Current Population Reports, P25-1144, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2020. (link)
Mark