Patrick Simon, “Lighter Than Blood: Ethnic Enumeration in the Era of Equality Policies”. Commentary by ARC Student Fellows Siqi Tu and Erik Wallenberg

Patrick Simon’s presentation “Lighter than Blood: Ethnic Enumeration in the Era of Equality Politics” is a research project looking at how states acknowledge and track racial and ethnic diversity. The title of the talk, “lighter than blood” has its reference to the famous book of Tukufu Zuberi, “Thicker than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie”. Simon is looking at the globalization of racial and ethnic politics in the context of equality policies like affirmative action. His concerns include the paradox of the re-creation of racial categories in the practice of using racial categories to track racial disparities and in the production of statistics. Simon looks at how people react to racial classification in census surveys in a multi-country comparison (includes US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, France, among others).

The reasons historically for collecting data on racial, national, and ethnic origins are many. From the domination, subordination, and segregation of sections of populations, to the attempt to acknowledge diversity and create multiculturalist societies, and for political action to right past injustices (used to guarantee voting rights or affirmative action), gathering this data has a variety of uses. Beyond these fraught uses of this data on race and ethnicity, there are problems in the collection of this data as well. And this is not just the threat of the crude essentialization of scientific racism, but the imposition of ethnic identity in the limited choices given in surveys or the taking away of options for identifying oneself. The international human right and equality agencies like OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) and CERD (Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) have been asking for more statistical data collection broken down by race and ethnicity in an era of post-mass migration.

Simon argues that the collecting accurate statistics is essential for implementing affirmative action programs which have been implemented in a growing number of countries. He argues that statistics make visible the invisible, showing where discrimination is occurring.

Simon suggests that scholars should move toward a constructivist approach assuming that race and ethnicity are indeed subjective and socially constructed concepts. The constructivist turn in ethnic and racial statistics raises a series of epistemological and methodological issues behind ethnic categorization. Currently, states that do not directly collect data on race and ethnicity use other indicators of ethnic diversity (such as language spoken at home, parents’ original countries) as a proxy. Other methods of collecting ethnic data include self-declaration, third-party recognition and group recognition. Each has its own limits given the fluidity of race and ethnicity. The more open-ended the question is in the self-declaration method of collection, the more assumption statisticians will do in the later process of “re-coding” the race and ethnicity category. Statistics is not objective, as Simon mentions in the beginning of the talk, which only represents the convention understanding of the society. Moreover, since race and ethnicity is essentially a social construct, methodological issues like moving identities, multiple identities and misclassification will constantly emerge. Simon suggests that we do not have to be consistent in creating race and ethnicity categories for each nation, because racism is not consistent. For example, in the US census, “the Hispanic question” has been revised from an extra question outside of the “race” question into part of the “race” question. Conflating the Hispanic and race question is to avoid misclassification of “non-Hispanic white”. Also, the perception for the purpose of collecting the ethnic data has changed slightly over the years. Hispanic population starts to utilize this data to claim their rights. In the Canada case, their household survey asks the interviewee’s ancestors and whether they belong to a loosely defined “visible minority” group. In the UK case, the census asks for the interviewee’s ethnic group. In the Brazil case, the census directly asks the interviewee about his/her skin color. All these cases demonstrate that there is no standardization regarding the ethnic enumeration. It is a pragmatic description of the current situation of the nation. In the French case, the census bureau is not allowed to collect race and ethnicity data because the French constitution supposedly treats its citizen “without distinction”. However, Simon argues that it is hypocritical since the discrimination toward minority groups does exist and being colorblind will not make the situation better.

Simon’s presentation has shown that the categorization process is a dialectic one involving constant negotiation around the epistemological understanding of race and ethnicity. We are looking forward to more findings from Simon’s new project on the globalization of racial and ethnic politics in the context of equality policies (POLRACE).