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Census racial categories aren’t so black and white

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                                Gloria Fortner, 13, says she values all of the influences of her parentage. Her father, Bruce Fortner, is a black pastor, and her mother, Florencia Velasco Fortner, is a Mexican immigrant who heads a nonprofit.


    Gloria Fortner, 13, says she values all of the influences of her parentage. Her father, Bruce Fortner, is a black pastor, and her mother, Florencia Velasco Fortner, is a Mexican immigrant who heads a nonprofit.

DALLAS » When Gloria Fortner was a little girl, a classmate of black and white parentage claimed to be a “better mix” than her. It was a jarring experience — one that has stayed lodged in her mind over the years.

But now, Gloria, the daughter of a black pastor and a Mexican immigrant who heads a nonprofit, said she’s forgiven if not forgotten.

“It’s OK,” the lanky violinist said on a recent afternoon. “We follow each other on Instagram now, so it’s fine.”

Gloria is 13.

And she doesn’t see herself as “mixed up” or “half” anything. Rather, the eighth-grader views herself as equally of two cultures — both of which she values deeply.

“I consider myself as African-American and also Mexican and also a little Native American?” she said, looking toward her mother for a nod. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

The Lancaster teen is one of a growing number of Americans who are navigating a shifting racial middle ground as the country’s white population ages and interracial coupling becomes more common. Since 1980, for instance, the percentage of marriages between spouses of different races has almost quadrupled.

Those changing demographics — which are even more marked in rapidly diversifying Texas — demand a more nuanced understanding of race and ethnicity.

Discussions have taken on a heightened sense of urgency as disproportionate police violence against black people has brought racial tensions to the foreground — tensions long simmering underneath broader debates about poverty and stubborn housing segregation.

The idea of race as a single box you check on a form is disappearing, said Carolyn Liebler, who has done extensive work with census data as a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota population center.

“I’m a white person, and all of my ancestors are white, from northwest Europe,” she said. “People like me founded the system, and we don’t imagine that there could be a complication because it’s outside the realm of experience.”

But that complexity can be a good thing.

“It’s better to have a more complicated view because the world is complicated,” Liebler said, “and what we’re trying to do is understand the world.”

Race, according to sociologists and demographers, isn’t so much a scientifically fixed trait as it is a set of experiences: a complicated, evolving puzzle that fits together the way you see yourself and the way others see you, all set against the backdrop of your place within a fraught history.

U.S. Census Bureau officials say the country’s increasing diversity has prompted the agency’s most significant review yet of the way it asks Americans about their race and ethnicity.

“The Census Bureau is continually researching methods to improve our data on race and ethnicity so that we can provide our country with important information that reflects our growing racial and ethnic diversity and the complexity of our myriad of American experiences,” a Census Bureau official said in a statement.

Recommendations from that research will shape the wording on the 2020 survey, which officials hope will lead more people to an accurate description of their ethnicity — not just “some other race.”

Rachel Marks, a senior analyst for the agency’s ethnicity and ancestry branch, put it another way: “Does this (wording) help people find themselves better?”

In particular, Marks said, people of Middle Eastern or North African descent haven’t been well-represented in government data. Currently, she said, the federal government considers them white. The agency has also researched whether it makes sense to have two separate questions about ethnicity and Hispanic origin.


In 1790, the first census grouped people into three racial categories: free white males and females, all other free persons and slaves.

Since then, changes to the race and ethnicity question have coincided with various waves of immigration.

“Chinese” made its first appearance as a racial category on the 1860 survey, but only in California.

“Hindu” was listed as a racial category in 1920, 1930 and 1940, before it was removed. It was the only time a religion has appeared as an option in the race and ethnicity question.

The Census Bureau first allowed people to pick more than one race to describe themselves in 2000.

All those changes highlight the fuzziness of race as a concept. Liebler’s research shows that it may be more accurate to track racial identity as fluid and shifting.

“Demographers already have crazy complicated (statistical) models: You have everyone’s life story, of being single, dating or cohabitating, getting married and getting divorced, and then you take those life stories and look for patterns,” she said. “Is it a problem to have a fluctuating identity?”

The Pew Research Center reported that as many as 6.2 percent of census respondents picked “some other race” in the 2010 census, which means millions of people are essentially unaccounted for in America’s ethnic tableau.

And more than 10 million Americans changed which race or ethnicity boxes they picked between their 2000 and 2010 census forms, according to an analysis of 168 million census forms that Liebler worked on with the Census Bureau.

Jenifer Bratter, a sociologist at Rice University, said watching how Latinos identify themselves in Texas as they become the majority can serve as a microcosm for the rest of the country’s demographic trends.

“Understanding mixed identity will only enhance our understanding of that group — how the expansion of (the Hispanic origin group) is blurring as opposed to competing with the non-Hispanic white population,” she said.

Still — speaking days after a peaceful Black Lives Matter march in Dallas was transformed into a killing ground by a black military veteran who targeted white police officers — Bratter said she doesn’t have high hopes for some kind of utopian color-blind, post-racial society.

“If (that) is any indication, no,” she said. “The relevance of these categories occurs against the backdrop of the relevance of race in daily life, and as long as it continues to be … experienced as a divide, with different access to resources, these categories are always going to have meaning.”

Florencia Velasco Fortner and Bruce Fortner, Gloria’s parents, are far from wide-eyed idealists when it comes to racial inequality, though they both said they have hope things will improve.

They met as community organizers in Dallas, and both have continued to work as community advocates.

She was born in Mexico and moved to Texas from El Monte, Calif., a heavily Latino enclave outside of Los Angeles. He grew up in New Orleans.

When Florencia first met Bruce’s mother, she had two questions:

“She said, ‘Boy, have you checked her ID?’ because I looked really young,” Florencia recalled. “And the second question … “

“Is she white?” Bruce finished the story. His mother just hadn’t met many Latinos.

When they were married, a minister told Bruce that by marrying Florencia, “you’ll turn your back on the black church.”

Florencia said that gave her pause.

“I knew how passionate he was about the black church and his ministry,” she said.

“He was wrong, so we just moved on,” Bruce said.

He said that “inevitably” those points of community friction will lessen, just as they have in his own life.

He and his mother-in-law now end their conversations by joking: “Florencia loca.” And his wife has settled into her role as “first lady” of a Baptist church in South Dallas, even though she’s often the only non-African-American in the room.

“That’s the question … How have we been able to make this work?” Bruce said, sitting across from his wife and daughter in their sunlit living room. “I think foremost, we came in with an open mind to each other’s culture and allowed ourselves to be transformed by that.”

Gloria fidgeted a little on the couch, stifling giggles while her parents reminisced about their relationship. She’d heard a lot of the stories before.

For the most part, Gloria said, she’s proud of her background and it’s made her more aware of other people’s struggles. When her family visited New Orleans, her dad recalled, she wanted to give money to everyone who asked.

At Gloria’s largely Latino school, though, conversations about ethnicity often get rolled in with the everyday anxieties that come with being a teenage girl.

Her classmates, Gloria said, “have a strict way of how they see beauty: you’re lighter skinned, and you’re thick — if you’re not like that you’re not hot; you’re just kind of there.”

“You can be not hot for a little while longer. I’m OK with that,” her dad cut in with a chuckle.

Gloria said she hopes that someday, no one will think it’s “weird” that her dad is black and her mom is Latina.

“Because they fell in love and they had me, and that’s basically all you need to know about me.”


©2016 The Dallas Morning News

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