Inside the US Government Agency where Identity Politics Was Born

Inside the US Government Agency where Identity Politics Was Born

Michael Gonzalez
Michael Gonzalez
8 min read

The phrase “grievance studies” recently has entered public discourse thanks to a scandal by three liberal academics who set out to expose the vacuous nature of critical theory, post-colonial studies, queer theory and other sub-disciplines within the social sciences. Mathematician James Lindsay, writer Helen Pluckrose, and Portland State philosophy professor Peter Boghossian spent a year writing fake papers, which they then pitched to journals specializing in these fields. Seven passed peer review and were accepted for publication. As various commentators (including several here at Quillette) have noted, the hoax has shown what many have long suspected—that ivory-tower academics who study in fashionable fields inhabit ideological domains far removed from those of ordinary people.

But while observers have correctly focused on the lessons that may be inferred about high academic culture in the United States, it should be noted that the drifts of the liberal arts into postmodern gibberish has not been an isolated phenomenon. The trend also has its cheerleaders in government, even in Donald Trump’s very own Washington D.C. backyard.

Few Americans have heard of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations (NAC). But when it comes to policymaking, the NAC effectively acts as a support network for grievance studies. Along with bureaucrats in other agencies, and various non-governmental “stakeholder” groups on the left, the NAC has for decades controlled the policy by which demographic data—the seedbed of identity politics—is collected and interpreted.

One ongoing dispute helps explain what the NAC does and why that work is important. In Jan., the Census Bureau (whose director is a presidential appointee) rejected two important changes to the 2020 census that had been proposed by the NAC. The first would have created yet another identity group, this one for Americans whose ancestors originate in the land between Morocco and the Iran-Afghan border, which were to be designated as MENA (for Middle East, North Africa). The second would have elevated another pan-ethnic group, Hispanics, to the status of a category on par with biological races. The NAC has bitterly opposed the Trump Administration’s decision not to go along with these initiatives, but that dispute was largely ignored by the media in the shadow of the much more high-profile issue of whether the census should ask residents whether they are U.S. citizens.

The NAC was formally chartered in 2012 by Barack Obama’s Secretary of Commerce. But informally, it traces its lineage to the 1960s and 70s, when the census office first began to create National Advisory Committees on race and ethnicity. It was in those heady days of postmodernism’s birth—when Marxism in its academic form was embarking on what the German student activist Rudi Dutschke called “the long march through the institutions”—that the definitions of ethnic groups were etched into law. Each of the pan-ethnic groups that racial activists and government functionaries were adding to the census and other government surveys at the time (“Hispanics,” “Asians,” “Pacific Islanders,” etc.) were the subjects of a special census committee, starting in 1974. Four decades later, the Obama administration pulled all the difference committees into one giant NAC.

The NAC’s 31 members, who are appointed by the Director of the Census Bureau, generally have exhibited enthusiasm for creating new racial categories. Four of its seats are held by so-called partner organizations, all of which tilt to the identitarian left—Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), the Mexican–American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), and the National Urban League. Two of these organizations, NALEO and AAJC, are ethnic-affinity-interest organizations that purport to represent pan-ethnic umbrella groups created by the federal bureaucracy and formalized through the Census—“Hispanics” and “Asians.”

Ten more members of the NAC represent organizations devoted to other ethnic or sexual identity groups: the Alliance of Iranian Americans, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, Asian American Decisions, the Japanese American National Museum, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Native American Rights Fund, the Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander National Network, Plataforma Afrodescendiente, the U.S. Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network, and the Supreme Court Committee on Minority Concerns. The other 17 members are mostly academics involved in the same “grievance studies” fields that Lindsay, Pluckrose and Boghossian exposed.

By statistically slicing and dicing American society, the NAC and its precursors helped pave the way for the creation in America of what social scientist Alice Robbin has termed “an interest group society.” By the late 1980s, Robbin has noted, ethnic interest lobbying organizations such as MALDEF, La Raza and AAJC had become “influential beyond their numbers in the public policy process, as well as in influencing administrative policy regarding rules for statistical and administrative data collection and reporting.”

This is how Robbins describes the process: “Federal statistics have created a similarity of identity where none existed, as with ‘Latino’ identity based on shared language rather than culture, and as with an ‘Asian’ identity based on shared discrimination and ethnic stereotyping.” In time, she notes, these same organizing principles began to dictate appearances at congressional and Office of Management and Budget hearings.

As one might expect, this process has led to a situation in which the sanctioned ethnic representatives at the NAC, and elsewhere in Washington, have at times become divorced from the concerns of ordinary people. Video from a brainstorming session the Census Bureau held with stakeholders at its Suitland, Maryland, headquarters on May 29, 2015, for instance, suggests that the creation of racial categories, such as MENA, Hispanic and Asian results from top-down decisions imposed by stakeholders—as opposed to individual Americans, who tend to be wary about (or even hostile to) broad ethno-geographic labels.

One of the leading “stakeholders” participating that day was none other than anti-Israel radical and Muslim activist Linda Sarsour. Speaking to NAC officials, she made clear what the new category MENA was about—political power and dollars: “When we look at accessing federal, you know, any types of federal support, for example, we lose out dramatically because we don’t have a separated category….Because we are quote ‘white,’ we are not seen as a priority area for city or state or federal funding….At the end of the day it’s self-identification.”

Participants expressed the hope that even though there was little or no grassroots demand for the creation of a MENA category, people would accept it once they understood that this form of identification might lead to material benefits. Khaled Beydoun, a critical race theory professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, put it this way: “There might not be considerable buy-in immediately after the classification is framed and adopted. But there’s a cascading effect, right? These classifications are going to be adopted on college applications, on employment forms. You know, different mediums that are going to adopt and endorse this classification. And when that happens, and people tie in ticking that classification with a specific interest, then there’s going to be buy-in.”

Cristina Mora of the University of California, Berkeley, another critical race theory professor (who authored a comprehensive study of the early years of the creation of the Hispanic identity, Making Hispanic), reassured others that ethnic activists and their allies in the media would convince people to support the new category. “When the Hispanic category—Latino category—was being discussed in the 1970s, lots of people did not know what this was,” she said. “[There was] a huge effort throughout the ’70s to get people to actually recognize this. It involved the media. It involved activists. So, if we’re unsure about whether it exists or not, these things will take on a life of [their] own.”

(In her book, Mora lucidly describes what transpires over time in this manner: “A sort of collective amnesia sets in as organizations begin to refer to the new category’s long history and develop narratives about the rich cultural basis of the classification. By then, the category is completely institutionalized, and the new classification is, like other classifications, assumed to have existed.”)

Roberto Ramirez, chief of the Bureau’s Ethnicity and Ancestry Statistics Branch, who moderated the discussion, agreed with Mora. He had invited Mora, he said, because MENA would follow the same path as the Hispanic category: “As she mentioned, in the 70s, where you had Cubans and you had Venezuelans and you had Puerto Ricans, who said, ‘I’m not Hispanic. I don’t know what the heck that is. So why are you trying to put me under that umbrella?’ So…there’s a lot of parallels,” Ramirez said.

The academic multicultural dogma that influenced official group-making in the latter decades of the 20th century was opposed to the idea of immigrants being transformed by the melting pot. But this project would not be possible unless immigrant groups were officially reformed, for statistical and quota-counting purposes, in groups that had critical mass.

Perhaps no NAC member was more emblematic of this movement than Julian Samora, who rose up from poverty, fatherlessness, and intense discrimination in Colorado to become the first Mexican-American to earn a Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology at a major university. He got his first teaching position in 1957 at Michigan State, then went on to found Notre Dame’s first Department of Mexican–American Ethnic Studies.

While writing his Ph.D. thesis, Samora was chastised by one of his academic mentors, George I. Sanchez of the University of Texas at Austin, for promoting a pan-Latin identity with shared perspectives that didn’t actually exist. “For gosh sakes, don’t characterize the Spanish-American with what is obviously true of the human race, and then imply, by commission or omission, that his characteristics are peculiarly his and, OF COURSE, radically different from those of the ‘Anglos,’” Sanchez wrote to Samora in the early 1950s. Sanchez went on to point out the evident silliness of lumping “Germans, Italians, Jews, Catholics, Baptists, hill-billies, Bostonians, poor whites” and so on into the generic term “Anglos.”

He also urged Samora to consider that the poor all shared the same societal dysfunctions, no matter their race and ethnicity: “The characteristics that distinguish the Spanish-speaking group in any part of the United States are much less ethnic than they are socio-economic…. There is no real ethnic sameness among the various subdivisions of the same Spanish-speaking group.” For Sanchez, “It takes a veritable shotgun wedding to make Puerto Ricans, Spanish–Mexicans, and Filipinos appear to be culturally homogenous.”

Samora saw things differently, perhaps because of the genuinely terrible discrimination he had endured, and repudiated assimilation as an option. He went out of his way to separate Mexican Americans first, then Hispanics, from the mainstream, and claim they were a racial group apart. He also convinced wealthy donors and federal officials to see these individuals as members of a subjugated group that could succeed only by acting as a racial collective. In all of these projects, his perch in the Census Advisory Committee gave him considerable sway.

This type of thinking, nourished officially by the NAC and equivalent bodies in other Western nations, has spread far and wide, especially in Europe and above all in the United Kingdom. There, the excesses of identity politics have become so glaring that even thinkers on the left such as Kenan Malik and Trevor Philips, the first an Indian-born British writer, the second the son of immigrants from British Guiana, have begun to speak out. In a manifesto called Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence, Philips wrote: “Even those of us on the progressive wing of politics must now surely accept that in the conditions of today’s society, our reflex defence of…separate communities is actually undermining one of the most cherished of left-wing values—social solidarity.” In Australia, likewise, there are now MPs from the (conservative) Liberal Party who are calling for gender quotas in the legislature. And last month, a shire council in New South Wales decided to move its Australia day event forward a day to note that January 26 marks “the day the cultural decimation and denigration of the First Australians began.”

Needless to say, reforming the NAC won’t solve all of the problems. But it might spark a process whereby Western governments begin to examine how their own policies have contributed to the fracturing of society into competing grievance-based constituencies.

The NAC charter and the Federal Advisory Committee Act give the U.S. Secretary of Commerce the authority to terminate the NAC. According to the FACA, “determinations of action to be taken and policy to be expressed with respect to matters upon which an advisory committee reports or makes recommendations shall be made solely by the President or an officer of the Federal Government.” Since the Secretary of Commerce established the NAC in 2012, under the FACA, the Secretary is authorized to terminate the NAC.

As noted, this is no silver bullet—just an important first step. And with Lindsay, Pluckrose and Boghossian having powerfully shown us how rotten things have become, there might be no time like the present to take it.

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Michael Gonzalez

Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.