Why the Obsession with Collecting Racial Data?

by James A. Bacon

To obtain press identification cards granting regular access to the Virginia State Capitol, journalists are asked an assortment of questions such as birth date, driver’s license number — and race. Democrats now in charge of the legislature say they’ve never heard of the race requirement, and critics say it is a reminder of the state’s segregationist past, reports WAMU.

The Capitol Police say asking for the racial identifier is part of a “standard background check,” but some are drawing a link between the requirement and Virginia’s 1924 “Act to Preserve Racial Integrity” and other vestiges of the Jim Crow era.

“I think it’s another manifestation of what we need to get rid of in the state of Virginia,” said attorney Victor Glasberg, who represented three couples suing for the right to get marriage licenses without stating their race. “It’s old Jim Crow [law] that has yet to be thrown out.”

“That question is on so many things. Marriage licenses, birth certificates, driver’s license applications. It’s unnecessary, but no-one ever thought let’s change it,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. “Why do we need to know what race a member of the press is?”

Good question. Why do we need to ask peoples’ race — not just for journalist credentials and marriage licenses, but for any purpose at all? Virginians want a color-blind society, don’t they? Well… don’t they?

As progressives never tire of telling us, race is a “social construct.” Without getting into the sticky question of the correlation between “race” and identifiable physical characteristics such as skin color, hair type, eye shape and the like, I do agree, race is in part a social construct. Once upon a time, race was an instrument of the white ruling caste, which, intent upon preserving its purity, defined what it took to qualify as white. Today race is an instrument of a ruling political class that derives its legitimacy and power in large measure from the cultivation of race-based victimhood, grievance, and identity.

Today’s ruling class. increasingly dominated by the leftist progressive ideology, is almost obsessed with race as the old ruling class. The problem for leftists isn’t that the state is asking for information about race, the problem is for what purposes the state is asking for information about race.

If the racial data point is merely for the purpose of ascertaining the identity of journalists, then it’s illegitimate. If the racial data point can be used to justify an increase in taxes, the proliferation of new programs, and the funneling of resources by the political class to favored identity groups, then it’s entirely OK. Without data on race, for instance, the modern-day Virginia Department of Education would be totally paralyzed and unable to conduct its business.

As Americans and Virginians, we need to ask ourselves, do we want a color-blind society? Or, conversely, are we committed to classifying people by race for the purpose of counteracting undeniable past racial wrongs with policies that are explicitly or implicitly based on race?

Personally, I think tribal, racial/ethnic identity-based politics is a no-win proposition for everyone. We need to embrace an ideology that (1) treats people as unique individuals whose race is only one (and a largely irrelevant one) of many identity-defining attributes, and (2) creates a society which gives everyone an opportunity to improve their lives (but is not guaranteed an outcome). I’d like to get rid of the “race” question, not just in journalism background checks but everywhere. Sadly, in the ideology of modern-day progressivism, in which racial identity is tied inextricably to power, that view probably makes me a racist.

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7 responses to “Why the Obsession with Collecting Racial Data?

  1. Another fine post here. It raises obvious questions, many in fact. Here only a few.

    What would happen if Asian folks looked like white folks?

    What would happen if black folks looked like white folks?

    What would happen is if Asian and Black folks looked alike?

    How about if white, black and Asian folks all looked alike?

    Now – in all these cases, if they came true in part or whole, how would our biases and opinions change, and how fast?

    Now, when you focus on all these questions, focus first on availability bias. That includes instant opinion making by individuals and groups of them, based on stereotypes, the sort of biases that trigger cascading memes that we have talked about so often here on Bacon’s Rebellion, the sort of mild prejudices that easily can be ramped up into the hysteria of a Love Canal, or a Candle Lit Vigil at UVA, or a riot there in Charlottesville.

    Here is another important question. What would happen if race identification conferred no benefit to any group or individual in America by its system of laws or otherwise? How important then would race be in America?

    And if such race identification has great importance in our society today, then is our society today deeply and pervaisively racist to its core?

  2. Well, I hate to tell you but it’s not just a leftist obsession but to play along on your premise – how would you feel if we did not look at academic performance with respect to white and black?

    Voila, the white/black academic performance “gap” would instantly disappear!

    And what would the “Unite the RIght” folks do , oh wait, we still have the “brown” people and Muslims… Jews… issue…

    but how about the academic performance thing?

  3. Mr. Larry the progressive policy makers in education have you outflanked. They lowered education standards and they lowered the cut scores on testing. This was done to achieve a movement of the needle that measures the performance gaps between subgroups.

  4. When I first joined the faculty at the University of Delaware (1965), the University was unable to comply with the Federal requirement for reporting the racial composition of the student body. The school did not have race on any of its forms. The school had to change. The Fed wanted to check on possible racial bias. The school argued unsuccessfully that it surely was not biased because it had no information on which to base a bias.

  5. Aside from the fact that a lot of laws and regulations are focused on racial minorities – including the collection of school data – by race – which is often used by others to demonstrate academic issues associated with race.

    But for a simple ID – the color of the person is certainly one of the attributes that might be used just like color of eyes and hair.

    Of course when it comes to IDs – we are getting closer and closer to facial recognition with technology – which also has some dimensions of good and problematical.

  6. Funny, but I am reading an excellent autobiography by Dororthy Burton Gilliam, a prominent journalist who was the first black woman at The Washington Post. Her accounts of reporting for the Post from Little Rock and Oxford and fascinating and terrifying. They weren’t all that long ago. So that’s why we need to keep stats on racial matters so we have a yardstick of where we were are are now. Too many people think it was game over long ago but there has been a resurgence of racism of late probably related to Trump. There’s also been a resurgence of anti Semitism.
    Speaking of race, I have a complaint about the headlines in this blog. Too many are in “Negroese” such as “Mo Money.” That’s not only in poor taste but racist. Let’s knock it off, ok? It works for a Spike Lee movie but it’s off key for a blog written by mostly older white guys. Can’t we be a little more sophisticated?

    • So, I guess I’m guilty of cultural appropriation. As a white person, I should restrict my vocabulary to words of “white” origin. I’m not allowed to borrow words, no matter how expressive, from other racial/ethnic groups. I see….

      Does that apply the other way around? Are African-Americans forbidden to borrow “white” phrases? Or, because of the imbalance of power, with me being “privileged” and them being “oppressed,” are they exempt from the restriction on cultural appropriation?

      How does that work, Peter? Perhaps you, as another privileged white guy, you can explain it to me.

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