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Richard M. Benjamin Headshot

Karamel Sutra Obama Causes a Stir

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The White House confirmed today that Obama checked only the "Black, African Am., or Negro" box on his 2010 Census form.

He could have checked "white." Or even "some other race." He could have even written in "multiracial."

Like Obama's extended clan, my family members have complexions like a Ben and Jerry's menu, ranging from Karamel Sutra to Chocolate Fudge Brownie.


More than a few multi-racial and white people I know are venting: They hate having to "wedge" themselves into a racial "box," one that doesn't seem to categorize them properly. How can the Census capture the rich complexions, cultures, or ancestry coursing through their veins? Through Obama's?

Too boot, many Americans express irritation that their race is being counted in the first place. Given our growing racial diversity and intermixed populations, led by a mutt-style President, why bother to consider race at all? Isn't race an anachronism?

Well, no. Not quite.

The 2010 Census allegedly puts America into a racial Double Bind. "The Census contains a message to the American people, and like any message it educates to some end: It tells them that the government thinks the most important thing about them is their race and ethnicity," Nathan Glazer, the renowned Harvard professor, complained in Public Interest.

Chief Justice John Roberts denounced the "sordid business" of "divvying us up by race" in a landmark 2007 school de-segregation majority ruling. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," the chief judge scolded.

Enter Glenn Beck and a cabal of conservative firebrands who are egging Americans on to ignore the census race question.

America's rapid social changes -- seen directly in Obama's face -- pique raw tensions over political, social, and economic power. Anger seethes across America's conservative landscape -- against government bailouts, unemployment, immigration, perceived high taxes, and the social shift of racial minorities one day becoming the majority.

But these census projections--and their eventual realization--need not bring unrest. Confronted with honesty, integrity, and communitarian values-- e pluribus unum-- our changing social composition can be rendered more an asset than an albatross.

Legal authorities use census data to monitor discrimination and to enforce civil rights laws. And without census data, we could not know whether qualified Latino buyers face discrimination in the housing market (yes) or whether rural, working-class white kids are disproportionately fighting in the Middle East (yes).

Some on the left suspiciously question the timing of the colorblind mania sweeping the nation.

"At the precise historical moment when race has become a tool for undoing racism and when the non-white population seems finally poised to surpass the white group, color blindness has emerged as a new racial ideology," observes Ian Haney Lopez, the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California.

A provocation: Should the US stop tracking its inhabitants' race, as the colorblind movement would have? Or should we endeavor to track race more comprehensively and nimbly?

Put bluntly, the 2010 and future census efforts need to count race more accurately and nimbly. This is not just an academic question for pointy-headed social scientists or for Oatmeal Chunk flavors like Obama. Rather, that question rouses our national self-awareness and safeguards our democratic integrity, by forcing us to face our demographic future with eyes wide open.

The breadth of census data helps us to uncover incredibly useful lessons about ourselves.