A Note on "White Men"

Last week, Patterico got kind of bothered about a sentence in an LA Times story about Chief Justice Rehnquist announcing that he had no immediate plans to retire, and how that affected Dubya's search for a replacement. In the paper's print edition:

The leading candidates were all white men.

But in the web version of the story (here), this read:

The leading candidates were all men.

See the difference, Clarence? So do I. And so did Patterico:

This is an entirely fictional account, as anyone who has been following the process well knows. … Numerous reports in late June, including reports crediting White House sources, reported that Latino and women candidates were rumored to be on President Bush's short list.

For example, a June 18 AP article named Emilio Garza as one of six candidates on Bush's short list. The article also named Edith Jones, Alberto Gonzales, and Miguel Estrada as "plausible picks"; A June 19 Washington Post article and a June 22 Chicago Tribune article both listed Gonzales as among the top contenders, citing anonymous sources close to (or working at) the White House. And, of course, the well-connected Bill Kristol famously predicted on June 22 that O'Connor would be the first retirement, and that Gonzales would be nominated to take her spot.

Now: there's obviously no problem with Patterico pointing out Edith Jones to refute the "men" part of the LA Times sentence. But he takes special note of the transformation of "white men" (in print) into just "men" (on the web), and points to Gonzales, Estrada, and Garza to refute the "white" part. And that's just, well, not exactly on the button.

When the LA Times refers to "white men," they're referring to race. Attempting to refute the "white men" wording by naming of three Hispanic counterexamples misses the point (such as it is), since "Hispanic" isn't considered to be a "race": it is an "ethnicity". It's entirely possible for Gonzales, Estrada, and Garza to be "white", and as far as I know, they are.

But that is way too simplistic. Because once you start looking into the classification of people by race and ethnicity, one of the first things you realize is that it's a politically-charged can of worms, where easy labels don't have much to do with reality or people's perceptions.

We have, of course, a long and sad history in this country of counting and classifying people by race. Racial classification was once important to maintain segregation and Jim Crow; nowadays, it's considered important for other allegedly more honorable reasons, like maintaining affirmative action programs, enforcing civil rights laws, and monitoring racial inequality. Classifying by ethnicity has some of the same pedigree. ("No Irish need apply!")

There are many fascinating documents at the Census Bureau website that offer views into how Your Federal Government currently thinks about this. A good place to start is Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity written in 1997 by the Office of Management and Budget. Therein you'll find:

  • The Five Official Races: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White.
  • The Two Official Ethnicities: "Hispanic or Latino" and "Not Hispanic or Latino."
  • How to tell: "Self-identification is the preferred means of obtaining information about an individual's race and ethnicity, except in instances where observer identification is more practical (e.g., completing a death certificate)"
  • What order to ask: "When the two question format is used, the Hispanic origin question should precede the race question."

It goes on and on in excruciating sensitivity and detail. ("A Cape Verdean ethnic category should not be added to the minimum data collection standards." Darn!)

The 2000 Federal Census asked questions based on these regulations. The (PDF) document, "Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin" summarizes the results. It's full of interesting numbers, but for the purposes of this already-too-long article, let's concentrate on the folks reporting Hispanic ethnicity. Without peeking, and with reference to the OMB's Five Official Races, what race mixture would you guess Hispanics reported?

I would have guessed: mostly "white", with some "black" (like Big Papi, David Ortiz).

I was surprised to find that only about 48% of Hispanics identified as "white"; only 2% said "black". But really surprising (and, I would imagine, kind of embarrassing to the Census Bureau) was this: about 42% said "Other". In other words, a huge chunk of Hispanics looked at the Five Official Races, and said: "Nope, none of those."

So, returning to the LA Times and Patterico: are Estrada, Gonzales, and Garza "white men"? I guess I've learned that there's no fixed answer to that question. The LA Times was wrong to imply the "yes" answer; Patterico was wrong to assume "no". A Census Bureacrat would ask them to "self-identify" racially. That might be fun for entertainment value. Would it settle anything? It might tell us how the individual viewed the nature of "race", but …

I happened across this page on the "Mixed Media Watch" website while researching this issue. It discusses the recent movie Hitch, which has a romance between characters played by Will Smith, indisputably African-American, and Eva Mendes, indisputably Hispanic. Says the article:

Eva Mendes was given the role opposite Smith because the moviemakers were worried about the public's reaction if the part was given to a white or an African American actress, according to Smith. The actor is saying that it was feared that a black couple would have put off worldwide audiences whereas a white/African American combo would have offended viewers in the U.S. …

Eva Mendes—who is of Cuban descent—was seen as a solution because apparently, the black/Latina combination is not considered taboo.

OK, fine. I guess. But then we have the comments by ordinary joes and janes following the article. "Mendes looks white." "You must be blind or somethin." "EVA MENDEZ [sic] IS WHITE, SHE IS PREDOMINANTLY MEDITERRANEAN, YOU CAN TELL" "Are you people blind or just in denial? This woman is about as white as Will Smith is white." "Obviously you have a distorted view of what white people look like. Based on the language you use it is highly reflective of a desperate and bitter white supremacist."

At this point, I invoked the name of an old Asian buddy: Ho Lee Cao. It goes on and on.

How badly people want to pigeonhole others by "race"! After all this rambling, I'm still not sure what "race" Mendes, Gonzales, Estrada and Garza are; I'm sure I don't care.

What I do care about is that, somehow, it would be nice to make progress toward some future where it didn't matter any more, where the Census Bureau would just count noses without paying undue attention to their hue or ancestry. Unfortunately, the trends I see are mostly in the other direction.

Last Modified 2012-10-26 10:50 AM EDT