Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Counting

I am happy to report my website is back up and running: new, improved and getting better all the time. (Those of us with limited skills bank heavily on potential.) You can start using www.JaneEls.com to get to this blog and hopefully find other awesome stuff as I unpack all the whistles and bells.

Here is my wit and wisdom for the week:

I may possibly be the most incompetent census taker our government has ever had. This revelation came to me last night after I realized I had counted the wrong house. I counted the house numbered 3452 of one county road when I was supposed to be counting 3452 of a totally different county road. What made this so upsetting was that it was my best job yet of counting-- Oh, I did a great job. I counted them up one side and down the other. I had everyone’s name, sex, birth date and race. I had their phone number. I knew how old they were and whether their house was paid for. I even knew if any member of their family sometimes stayed elsewhere like college or prison. (That’s the best part of being a census taker: legalized snooping.) I had made friends with their dogs. I thought the lady might invite me in for coffee and dessert any minute--until I reviewed her information which pointed out I had the wrong house. Oops.

I’ve had a week of training plus two weeks experience now as a NRFU (pronounced "Nor-Fu")for our decennial census. That’s government talk for “Non-Response Follow-Up”. In training they issued me a bunch of supplies that included a zip-lock bag containing a whole box of paper clips, four number two pencils, two erasers and one pencil sharpener plus an itemized list of these things and their highly specialized government item number. Our government doesn’t miss a trick. They know I have these supplies. I’m not sure if they will want them back when I finish. I hope not. The pencil sharpener is cool.

I didn’t make any promises to return the stuff but I did have to raise my right hand and take an oath as a federal employee, albeit an extremely temporary one. And I swear to God I think it was the same oath the Vice-President takes on inauguration day. Do you suppose Joe Biden might have to help count people if we got into a pinch? Or maybe I am now qualified to preside over the Senate?

After I took the oath, we spent the next four days learning a gabillion forms. I know what a D308 is as well as about a thousand other forms and acronymns. Mind you, now, I’m only after four answers: name, age, sex and race. There’s a fifth question at the very end --like an afterthought. It asks if the people own, rent or have a mortgage. I’m not sure the reason for that question. But four days of training, countless government forms………for four questions: name, age, sex and race.

Another great perk besides the little pencil sharpener is that I got several really detailed maps of the area where I live. That is probably the most impressive part of our work. The Census has everything mapped out into grids that get smaller and smaller until the map goes into such detail that it shows individual houses. They know the creeks and where even small water tanks are for the cattle. It doesn't show the hay barn but if you have a trailer beside your house, it shows that. They have mapped any structure a person could possibly live inside. It’s starting to look like the government knows everything about us. Except our name, age, sex and race.

I can’t help but think of one of my friends who changed his sex this time last year. He ended up with a new birth certificate and social security card as well as a new name. Somewhere after the last census the “former” person disappeared and has been replaced with a brand new 20-something-aged person who didn’t exist on the last count. Find the form number for that one.

But it was the questions about race that brought our training class to attention. For the 2010 Census there is no “Hispanic” race. You can be White. You can be Black, African American or Negro. You can be Asian Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Flipino, Vietnamese, Samoan, Guamanian or even Chamorro (huh?) But your race cannot be “Hispanic.”

I consulted with my anthropologist friend, Dr Julie Adkins, PhD , who told me that technically the Census is right; “Hispanic” is not a race.

Let us now pause for a moment-- to appreciate the fact that I actually know a real live anthropologist.

Julie reports:
As for "race": It's a problematic concept anyway, since most of what we call "race" is a social construct and has nothing to do with biological difference. (Although there are a few skeletal differences between Caucasian/Black/Asian persons that allow forensic anthropologists to make pretty good estimations of a person's "race" along with gender, age, etc.)

“ …Hispanic" is an ethnicity but not a race per se. The difficulty is that it's being treated as a "race" these days in all kinds of discussions, whether about affirmative action, or immigration, etc., etc. In terms of "pure" biology (i.e., skeletons!), Hispanics in this country are mostly White but with mixed Asian features (b/c of early human migrations to this hemisphere from Asia). Really, really indigenous Hispanics in Mexico, Guatemala, etc. "appear" more Asian in terms of biological "race," but mostly in Mexico and this country, the mixing (mestizaje) is so thorough that they appear more "Caucasian" in all terms except the somewhat darker skin tone.

It is true that many Hispanics aren't going to want to choose either "White" or "Black" for the census. I'd encourage them in that case either to choose "other" or "mixed," and let them specify.

When I fill out the annoying forms for jury duty and it asks "race," I write in "human." Technically, that's the only correct answer, though I'm sure it pisses them off. :-)

I’ve been on a sort of “theme-read” lately where a book on one subject leads to another on the same subject. And the subject of late has been race. Slavery produced so many mixed race people who appeared to be solely one or the other --which led to even further and unwitting mixing. We have such sophisticated genetic testing now that there are a lot of surprises in family trees. I can’t predict when but I’m positive that eventually race will become so diluted as to disappear entirely. My expert for this isn’t an anthropologist, it’s my daughter who works at a Day Care. She sees a hefty percentage of mixed-race kids. This is the only world my grandkids will know. There’s no going back, no “un-doing” it.

One less question for future census takers.

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