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New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 709-726

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"As white as anybody":
Race and the Politics of Counting as Black

Kenneth W. Warren


With the Census 2000 questionnaires in the mail during March of 2000, the word from black format radio to its listener base was unequivocal: avoid the undercount. Fill out and return your census forms. 1 The Undercount, of course, is the term for the widely known fact that the US census routinely misses some number of the nation's citizenry in its attempt to count the nation's population. More to the point, although the 1980 and 1990 censuses each missed less than two percent of the population, those not counted tended to be poor, minority urban dwellers. In 1980 "blacks made up 11.7 percent of the United States population," but accounted for fifty-three percent of those missed by the census. 2 And despite concerted efforts to redress the problem, the US Census monitoring board reported that "the 1990 undercount was larger than the previous census." In 1980 1.2 percent of the population was missed; in 1990 those missed accounted for 1.8 percent of the population, or 4.7 million people in all. In addition, the 1990 "results also continued an alarming trend: those left uncounted were disproportionately from minority, low-income or urban communities." 3 When coupled with estimates that as many as six million people, most of them white, were counted twice, the official nation was presumably whiter and wealthier than the "real" nation. 4 Yet even as radio hosts urged black listeners to make sure they were counted, they also professed only partial faith in the efficacy of this strategy. Pointing to what they insisted were disparities between the official and the actual crowd estimates for such events as the Million Man March and a more recent rally in Tallahassee, Florida in support of affirmative action, radio commentators complained that all official counting of minority populations amounted to undercounting. 5

The sense that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get individuals and the nation as a whole to count as black is both a recent and longstanding anxiety reflecting uncertainty about the ultimate point of political representation at all levels. Should we be striving for a nation in which people "like me"--in whatever way I define those attributes that [End Page 709] make someone "like me"--will always be present in assemblies that claim to represent me? 6 Or should we seek a nation in which even if there is no one "like me" in an assembly representing me, I can nonetheless rest assured that I will be represented responsibly and knowledgeably? Historically, of course, the latter goal has been undermined by the fact that for many people the production of assemblies that include no one "like me" has been for the most part a result of deliberate policies of exclusion. As Rogers Smith has demonstrated, US law has "long been shot through with forms of second-class citizenship, denying personal liberties and opportunities for political participation to most of the adult population on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, and even religion." 7 Understandably, then, it has made sense to insist that people like me be present in any body claiming to represent me.

Yet even in the wake of efforts to make the nation's politics more inclusive, problems of representation persist. And for those who count themselves among a numerical minority there is a high likelihood that no one "like me" will be found in some representative body whose decisions affect my well-being. And while there may be a number of possible ways to approach this problem, this essay will take up one particularly vexed response to the issue of nonrepresentation, namely, the attempt to transform somebody who is apparently not like me into someone who is--in other words, the attempt to make available to someone else those feelings, beliefs, assumptions, behaviors, and so forth that presumably would enable that person, if only for a time, to...


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