The Corner

U.S.

Boxes to Check, Miles to Go

A person holds Census information at an event in New York City, February 22, 2020. (Andrew Kelly / Reuters)

In Impromptus today, I have items about the pandemic, of course — and about politics, baseball, and more. One item concerns race, and the Census in particular. Let me quote:

Earlier this week, I was filling out the Census questionnaire. It almost killed me to answer the race question — a question that goes against what I believe — but I did it, thinking of Stephan Thernstrom.

Thernstrom, the famed historian, and a former professor of mine, once said something like this: “Say what you will about race-and-ethnicity questions, but they help out the social scientists” — it aids them in their work, to have such data.

So, that’s a measure of comfort . . .

I also thought of something that I would like to share with you here. In 2001, we published a piece by Ward Connerly, the founder and president of the American Civil Rights Institute. NR’s late president, Dusty Rhodes, called Ward “the bravest man I’ve ever known.”

The piece — in the April 16 issue — was called “Don’t Box Me In.” (When he saw the title we had given his piece, the author was very pleased — tickled, as certain Midwesterners say.) The subtitle: “An end to racial checkoffs.”

To my knowledge, the piece is not findable on the Internet, although perhaps better Googlers than I can locate it. I have a copy, though, and would like to excerpt the first few paragraphs.

A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with a group of supporters following a lecture. One of those in attendance was a delightful woman who applauded my efforts to achieve a colorblind government. She strongly urged me to stay the course, promised financial support for my organization — the American Civil Rights Institute — and proclaimed that what we are doing is best for the nation.

Then, an odd moment occurred, when she said, “What you’re doing is also best for your people.” I flinched, took a couple of bites of my salad, and gathered my thoughts. I thought: “My people”? Anyone who knows me knows that I abhor this mindset. But this dear lady doesn’t know all my views or the nuances of race. She has innocently wandered into a racial thicket and doesn’t have a clue that she has just tapped a raw nerve. Do I risk offending her by opening this issue for discussion? Do I risk losing her financial support by evidencing my distaste for what she has said? Perhaps it would be best to ignore the moment and let my staff follow up in pursuit of her support.  

I concluded that the situation demanded more of me than to believe that she was incapable of understanding what troubled me about her comment. So, I did what comes naturally in such situations — I politely confronted her. “What did you mean when you referred to ‘my people’ a moment ago?” I asked. “The black race,” she responded. “What is your ‘race’?” I asked. She said, “I’m Irish and German.” I plowed ahead. “Would it affect your concept of my ‘race’ if I told you that one of my grandparents was Irish and American Indian, another French Canadian, another of African descent, and the other Irish? Aren’t they all ‘my people’? What about my children? They consist of my ingredients as well as those of their mother, who is Irish. What about my grandchildren, two of whom have a mother who is half Vietnamese?” The lady was initially awestruck. But that exchange produced one of the richest conversations about race I have ever had.

This discussion is one that an increasing number of Americans are having across our nation. It is one that many more would like to have. Thanks to the race questions placed in the 2000 Census, a great number of people are beginning to wonder about this business of their “race.”

Today, we are in a much more tribalist and “identitarian” age than 20 years ago, when Ward wrote that piece. I have always wanted to see the evanescence of race-consciousness in America, but the trends are in the other direction.

I once heard Ward tell a story about his granddaughter, who, when little, was confused about her identity. “What am I?” she asked her grandfather. “Honey,” he answered, “you are first and foremost an individual. Yourself.”

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