A notable example of how Americans fall through the cracks in Census data gathering caught my attention while Web surfing. It appeared on the Black-oriented website TheRoot.com under this eye-catching headline: “I found one drop; Can I be Black now?”
The “one drop” is a reference to the old racial rule that one drop of Black blood in your veins makes you Black. As a full-fledged Black American, I wondered who was so eager to join the club?
The answer turned out to be a white woman who had written to The Root’s “Race Manners” advice column. She had uncovered an African-American ancestor who long ago had passed for white. Now faced with census forms, among other documents that ask us Americans for our race, she was wondering which box to check.
“Do I check both, and come across as a liar to those who don’t know my history?” she asked. “Or do I check just white, and feel like a self-loathing racist?”
I sympathize with the suddenly mixed-race woman’s confusion. In changing times, government forms are often the last to catch up.
It has only been since 2000, for example, that mixed-race people are allowed to check more than one racial box. And that’s just one slice of America’s changing demographics on which census forms are falling behind.
On question number 9 in the 2010 form, for example, there are check boxes for “White,” “Black, African American or Negro,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” as well as 11 other choices that actually are ethnic nationalities from Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Hispanics are mentioned in a separate question, clearly as an ethnic group, apparently in response to confusion in 2000 that the Census Bureau says resulted in about 43 percent of Hispanics failing to specify a race. Some even wrote in “I am Hispanic.”
Even so, the new form left out mention of the entire Middle East, among other regions, leaving their ethnic groups to check “white” or fill in the catch-all box for “Some other race.”
More extensive questions of ethnicity and ancestry have been asked since 2000 by another set of longer forms, the American Community Survey. Unlike the 10-year census, the longer ACS is conducted among a sample of 250,000 people every month. That’s a good model, some experts, say for how the 10-year census could give a more complete and realistic picture of America’s changing demographic landscape.
“We shouldn’t be governing in the 21st century by a race classification given us by a German doctor in 1776,” former Census Director Kenneth Prewitt told me in an email exchange.
He was referring to the German medical scientist Johann Blumenbach, whose 1776 book, “On the Natural Varieties of Mankind,” established the familiar but woefully inadequate five-race model we know so well today: “Caucasian, Mongolian (Asian), Malay (Pacific Islanders), American Indian and Negro.”
That was too simplistic then, let along now. Yet we still tend to stick with it officially, in our daily conversations and even in a popular children’s song about how God loves all the little children in the world. (“Red and yellow, black and white/ They’re all precious in his sight…”)
In a book to be released in June, titled “What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans,” Prewitt, now a public affairs professor at Columbia University, calls for an overhaul of census race questions for a new era in our increasingly diverse nation.
It’s not enough just to count noses, he argues. We know, for example, that income gaps have been growing since 1960 between Americans of all races who have schooling beyond a high school diploma and those who don’t. Yet our focus on racial differences too often gets in the way of what we should be learning about class barriers.
Prewitt lays out a bold plan for phasing out the current questions about race while phasing in a new set aimed at measuring differences in income, education and upward mobility and social assimilation — key questions in determining how well our fabled American “melting pot” is still working.
Whether Prewitt’s scheme is widely embraced or not, it’s worth talking about. Americans are changing too much for us to squeeze ourselves into the old boxes.
Was President Obama really joking at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner? Or was he showing, as I suspect, early signs of the second-term blues?
It’s fashionable for critics to harrumph with outrage over the chummy elbow-massaging CSPAN-covered spring “nerd prom” of politicians, media moguls, Hollywood stars and, here and there, some actual White House journalists — especially if they didn’t get invited.
But sometimes actual news or, at least, useful insights break out, especially if you listen for hidden messages in the president’s traditionally humorous roast of himself and others.
Right off the bat, Obama drew contrasts between his first and second terms. “How do you like my new entrance music?” he asked the crowd after half-dancing his way to the podium to the pounding beat of a rap tune.
“Rush Limbaugh warned you about this,” he quipped. “Second term, baby. We’re changing things around here.”
He also turned the paranoid right’s Obama myths on their head: “I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be.”
But some of his humor made one wonder whether he was actually joking.
“Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress,” the president said. “‘Why don’t you get a drink with (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really?” The crowd laughed.
“Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” he added. The crowd laughed even more. But the line had an edge to it that even Obama seemed to notice. “I’m sorry,” he said, expressing mock regret. “I get frustrated sometimes.”
Go for the pain, I have heard wise standup comedians advise rising would-be comics. The day-to-day pain of life gives comedians some of their best material. Obama’s day-to-day political pain seemed to produce his most memorable punch lines.
“Everybody has got plenty of advice,” he sighed. “(New York Times columnist) Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in ‘The American President.’ And I know Michael is here tonight. Michael, what’s your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? Might that have something to do with it?”
Obama was responding to a column by Dowd, in full mean-girl mode, praising his ability to connect emotionally with people but opining that “he still has not learned how to govern.”
“No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him,” she wrote. He won public opinion for a popular bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, yet the bill fell short of passage in the Senate — a “glaring example,” she wrote, “of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants.”
Obama’s response: You’re living in a fantasy world, Maureen. Yet she’s also right. Obama’s response was funny, partly because the truth hurts.
Days after appearing with other former presidents at the dedication ceremony for President George W. Bush’s presidential library in Dallas, Obama certainly doesn’t want to experience the plunge in approval ratings that sunk Bush’s legacy.
Yet the day after this year’s dinner, a Washington Post analysis sounded a lot like Dowd. More than four years in the White House, it said, the president “still isn’t very good at using his personal charm to achieve political success.”
Yet charm is one of the few avenues he has left as he pushes such remaining priorities as a sweeping budget deal and comprehensive immigration reform.
Unlike Lyndon B. Johnson, who had a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress to help him push a record number of his bills to passage, Obama has one of the most hostile Congresses in history. Besides new issues, he still has to defend his past successes such as the health-care law and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill.
Arm-twisting has its place, but it doesn’t do much good on core ideological issues like gun control, against which conservatives are remarkably resistant even to polls. His headaches may well get worse after the 2014 midterms, which traditionally draw voters who are older, more conservative and more anti-incumbent toward whoever is sitting in the White House.
No wonder this president is showing signs of the second-term blues. No joke.
He thought his wife was in love with another man, police say, so James L. McFillin of Baltimore decided to blow the other man up.
It was 1979 in Baltimore. McFillin wired two sticks of an explosive called Tovex 220 into the electrical system of a truck belonging to Nathan A. Allen, Sr., killing Allen and injuring another man, prosecutors said.
What McFillin did not know was that his Tovex was “tagged,” as U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would say. His two sticks were part of about 7 million pounds of explosives that manufacturers had laced with microscopic, color-coded plastic particles called “taggants” as part of a $5 million experiment to test the ability of taggants to identify explosives.
To McFillin’s dismay, the taggants worked. Federal agents traced his explosives back to him and he was convicted in 1980.
In that year Switzerland became the first and, so far, only country to require taggants in all explosives manufactured there or imported.
But taggants didn’t get far in this country until the late 1990s when President Clinton signed a bill to put “a detection agent,” the legal term for what taggants do, in plastic explosives, but not gunpowder. Gunpowder was exempted under pressure from explosives manufactures and a larger and even more influential ally — guess who — the National Rifle Association.
Among their arguments: Taggants would add expense. They might make explosives less stable and thus less safe.
But most controversially, there is the classic NRA “slippery slope” worry: A program that requires keeping records on who buys explosives could ease the way to national gun registration. The gun lobby views gun registration as tantamount to confiscation, despite the many Supreme Court decisions that have upheld the constitutional right to bear arms.
After a 1980 study by the Office of Technology Assessment suggested several options, including further government testing and development, Congress chose the option the NRA preferred: They ordered the BATF to stop looking for ways to trace gunpowder.
This anti-science approach has become something to expect from the NRA. Gun violence research ground to a halt at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1996 after the NRA successfully lobbied Congress to ban research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” After the Sandy Hook school massacre, President Barack Obama lifted the ban by executive order, but funding remains in question.
Now, after the Boston Marathon bombing, Capitol Hill is talking about taggants again. Putting it in writing is another matter. It would make a nice addition, in my view, to a bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced a week after the Boston bombing — on behalf of ailing Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat and long-time gun control champion. The Explosive Materials Background Check Act would require just that, background checks for anyone purchasing explosive powders.
Can explosives control fare better than gun control? After the recent Senate defeat, despite its widespread popularity in polls, of a bill to require background checks for firearms, we have seen how democracy doesn’t always work as it should in this Congress.
In a telephone chat, I asked William Kerns, president of Microtrace, the Minneapolis-based company that makes taggants, how he feels about the NRA’s concerns. He drew a distinct line of difference between firearms and explosives. “I’m a member of the NRA,” he said, noting that he was a retired captain in the Minneapolis Police Reserve, “and I don’t want to have to register my gun.”
However, when I asked him about concerns over the safety and stability of explosives to which taggants were added, he said, “They’ve been requiring it in Switzerland for about 30 years and I haven’t heard any complaints.”
More research needs to be done in this country, a 1998 National Research Council study found. Concerns “about cost, safety and effectiveness must be addressed before additives can be widely used,” the study concluded.
That’s fair, but that was 15 years ago. Technology has advanced quite a bit since then, yet no further government research or even serious talk about taggants and their “cost, safety and effectiveness” has occurred. Lost time is lost opportunities.
Some media found the possibility that foreign terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon to be too tantalizing an explanation to pass up, even when it snares the wrong suspects.
On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, the New York Post proudly presented a scoop that misidentified an injured “Saudi national” as a terror suspect. By the next day, authorities confirmed that the badly burned man actually was a witness, not a suspect. Sorry about that.
Online vigilantism ran so wild on the Reddit online link-sharing community that its general manager Erik Martin issued an apology this week. Before the brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and alleged co-conspirator Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, were identified as the bombing suspects, several innocent men whose photos and names were circulated through Reddit, including a 17-year-old high school student and a Brown University student who has been missing since March. Sorry again.
The meteoric rise of new Internet media created a new and dangerous rise of send-before-you-think journalism, especially in do-it-yourself media. That puts a greater burden on news consumers to be skeptical about how and what they are being served.
Unfortunately, it also can create real dangers to individual lives, social dialogue and even national security
For example, in a New York Times essay a day after the Boston bombings, Haider Javed Warraich, a medical resident in Boston, gave this explanation for why he decided against running into the action: As “a 20-something Pakistani male with dark stubble” owing to his hectic schedule in an intensive-care unit, he wrote, “I look like Hollywood’s favorite post-cold-war movie villain.”
That night CNN and ABC News journalist Christiane Amanpour read from Warraich’s op-ed at the Arab American Institute’s annual dinner in Washington, which I attended as a guest.
Amanpour was receiving an achievement award named for Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times foreign correspondent and Lebanese-American who died while covering Syria’s unrest last year.
Amanpour used Warraich’s quote to underscore a point she wanted to make about what she called “the elephant in the room.” She was referring to the haunting concern by many in that hotel ballroom that the marathon bombers, not yet identified, might turn out to be Arabic — and rekindle post-Sept. 11 prejudices and suspicions about all Arabs.
“How many of us feel this burden of association and hope beyond hope that this doesn’t turn out to be what it might be?” said Amanpour. “No conclusions yet. … Is it international? Is it domestic? But like all of you — I’m not Pakistani, and I’m not Arab, but I am part Iranian. And I do understand the burden of association….”
As an African American I, too, understand the burden of guilt by association. I took no consolation when the focus of racial profiling discussions, a hot issue in the 2000 presidential primaries, suddenly shifted after Sept.11, 2001, from “driving while Black” or Latino to anyone who looked as though they might be Arab or Muslim.
That’s why I find it ironic to hear increasingly about how much white conservatives don’t like to be profiled, either. Breitbart.com, among other conservative websites, slammed NPR, for example, for a publicly funded “smear” in “the media’s never-ending crusade to falsely blame the right for mass murder.”
Their complaint? They didn’t like NPR’s counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston’s report that officials were investigating possible connections between the marathon bombs and “anti-government, right-wing folks,” among other possible leads.
My response? Step back and take a breath, folks, unless you really want to be identified with the sort of nitwits who celebrate Hitler’s birthday.
As the facts unfold, the backgrounds of the Boston bombing’s brother suspects frustrate our usual narratives and stereotypes. They’re foreign born, but domestically raised without obvious ties to terror groups.
We need to get past everyone’s hurt feelings to have a serious conversation about how we deal with both forms of threats to our national security.
Email Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com. Tribune media services.
It pains me to congratulate the National Rifle Association, but their help in the Senate’s defeat of background checks for gun purchases was an impressive victory — against common sense.
Although there is widespread disagreement over what constitutes “common sense,” it’s not unreasonable to assume that an issue like universal background checks — for which public support runs as high as 90 percent in some polls — fits the definition.
What’s surprising is how quickly the high hopes for background checks collapsed, despite their popularity. Are the senators listening, many wonder? Does American democracy work anymore?
After all, it is widely reasoned, if background checks are such a good idea for immigrants, why not for gun buyers? What better way to put a pinch in the flow of guns to people whose criminal backgrounds or mental health records indicate they should not have firearms?
Adding to the amendment’s common-sense credentials were its two exemplary Senate sponsors, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and even more conservative Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Both labored through weeks of negotiations to make the measure as palatable as possible to all sides.
Besides, even the NRA supported background checks back in the 1990s, although they worked hard to dilute the reforms at every turn.
But as Sandy Hook and other high-profile massacres in recent years fired up the public in favor of expanded background checks, the NRA turned against them.
Lawmakers pay attention to that. The NRA doesn’t just make noise or, backed by the firearms industry, donate barrels full of campaign cash. They also mobilize voters.
In general, those who oppose gun limits are much more likely to get off the couch and vote for — or against! — a candidate on that single issue than those who favor such limits.
Unable to come up with good reasons why background checks used to be a good idea but aren’t now, the opposition makes stuff up.
There’s the argument, for example, that they don’t do any good because criminals will still find other ways to buy guns. Sure. But making guns harder for dangerous people to purchase is the whole point.
Then there’s the slippery slope argument: background checks will lead — “inexorably,” says Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — to federal gun registration, which paranoid opponents see as no more than a pistol shot away from gun confiscation.
In the end, arguments like that, questionable as they may be, were enough to prevent the Manchin-Toomey amendment from winning more than 54 votes. Yes, that’s a majority of the 100-member Senate, but not enough to reach the 60-vote threshold set by Senate rules.
Still, inside Republican congressional leadership, celebrations are muted. This fight exposed a dangerous divide in the Grand Old Party’s ranks that has opened up since the party’s presidential election defeat.
On one side are the pragmatic congressional leaders, who favor a radical restructuring of “big government” but also want to widen the party’s appeal. That means talking not only about cutting taxes and spending but also how to boost social mobility and fix the country’s broken immigration system.
On the other side are the newer tea party generation in both houses of Congress who blame the party’s establishment and fundraising elites for the party’s problems. Instead of immigration reform, they would rather reach Hispanic voters through the same appeals to religious conservatism and economic liberty that have built the party’s base.
The surprising setback for gun safety puts a new cloud of uncertainty on the post-election momentum for immigration reform. We have heard a lot from those who want to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows. We have yet to hear much from non-Hispanic white workers in the GOP base whose idea of immigration reform is increased border security — and not much else.
No wonder Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and other members of the “Gang of Eight” senators working on an immigration reform bill appear to be taking their sweet time. It has often been said that Democrats have to “fall in love” with their candidates while Republicans “fall in line.”
In Congress, at least, they don’t seem to be falling in line as quickly as they used to.