A look back on 2020

The following is not a holistic or even personal review of the (widely panned) year 2020. It applies only to the year as experienced by this blog, which I would go as far as to call… relatively good! In keeping with the venerable tradition started last year, here’s a meta-blog post highlighting “our” performance in 2020.

Achievement unlocked: 3,000 annual views

I’ve jokingly referred to 2019 as a “record-breaking” year for this blog because it just barely beat out the viewership record I set in 2016, itself a pretty small feat. But this past year involved a much starker improvement in terms of both visitors and viewership as the result of concerted if minimal efforts. Eddiethoughts.com had over 3,000 views from more than 2,000 visitors in 2020.

I’m unironically proud of this! While we’re by no means dealing with large numbers, the increase in views and visitors reflects some successful strategizing on my part and makes me feel like I could do even better with some additional effort. There is something to be said for setting a goal, no matter how mundane, and accomplishing it.

As far as the aforementioned strategizing, I tried a few new things this past year. First, I wrote more—a total of 17 posts, compared to nine in 2019 and 12 in 2018—having observed last year that per-post engagement was increasing. I reasoned that writing more would lead to improved viewership. I think it worked—at least a little. (I believe update frequency has some bearing on search engine rankings, and as you’ll see below, search engine referrals to the site greatly increased this year relative to the last two.)

Second, I embraced “cross-posting” to a much higher degree than in years past. Mostly, this has meant shilling blog posts in opportune Twitter threads (follow me if you feel like it!) or posting plots with links on r/dataisbeautiful. This is easily the biggest factor in the 2020 viewership jump, as evidenced by the changing composition of my site’s referrals.

Lesser, ancillary strategies included adopting an “evergreen” mentality with regard to some of the written material on this website (i.e. linking to old posts when there’s a good opportunity to do so) and writing about people or works that already have large followings, the latter most notably done with the review of the late David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which the author himself retweeted, likely bringing an extra 150-or-so views to the post in question.

Top blog posts in 2020

(How’s that for SEO?) Following are the top ten blog posts by views during 2020. Bold links were written in 2020, others are older. The number next to each link is its corresponding view count (during last year).

  1. Smoking and the Hispanic Paradox [975]
  2. Review: Bullshit Jobs: a Theory [215]
  3. The Kids Are All Right [142]
  4. Cigarette Daydreams [107]
  5. Massachusetts Cities and Coronavirus [82]
  6. Quito, en Casa [67]
  7. A Quick Rant About “American Collapse” [57]
  8. Thoughts on Marc Andreessen’s IT’S TIME TO BUILD [43]
  9. A Study in Cat Ladies [41]
  10. Kicking Away the Ladder? [31]

Going forward

I haven’t felt much like writing lately, and I don’t know if this will change any time soon. I think this is due to the collapse in my (and most others’) social life, the excruciating tenor of politics in an election year, and a newly onset and profound disillusionment with our sense-making institutions, which had formerly been a source of inspiration.

I’m going to try to get back into it, though. It’s important to have an outlet, and there’s certainly plenty to write about. We’ll see.

Here’s to the new year, friends.

Racial Gerrymandering (The Other Type)

Race, however nebulous a concept, is typically thought of as static among individual human beings. And yet, millions of Americans may wake up on Census Day, 2020 as a member of a different race–at least, on paper.

The proposed changes are meant to help align census definitions with the way Americans think about race. It’s an incredibly difficult, if not quixotic, task, due in no small part to the census’ historical ambiguity on the issue.

A little background

Since its inception in 1790, the United States Census has tracked racial data. The federal government uses this data to track health and environmental outcomes across populations, promote equal employment opportunities, to redistrict, and to inform federal policy with regard to civil rights.

Because the decennial census data are used for redistricting purposes and inform race-related social policy, you can count on a lot of advocacy and politics influencing every step of the process.

The Census Bureau collects data in accordance with the guidelines set for it by the Office of Management and Budget. This data is self-reported (though it has only been this way since 1960) and is acknowledged to adhere to social, rather than scientific, definitions.

Here’s what’s happening

A proposal by the Office of Management and Budget suggests creating a new racial category, MENA (Middle East and North Africa), and combining the ethnicity and race questions. Together, both changes could affect the way over 60 million Americans racially identify.

Under current guidelines, people with “origins” in the Middle East and North Africa are considered white. Critics, notably the Arab American Institute, claim this categorization is an inaccurate vestige of anti-Asian immigration law from the 19th century that led Middle Eastern immigrants to advocate for white status. Creating a separate racial category will allow for better data collection and confer upon “MENA-Americans” the same legal protections and privileges granted to other minority groups, they argue.

Hispanics, on the other hand, are not currently considered a race by the census, but rather an ethnicity. In fact, the only two options given to Americans for ethnicity are “Hispanic or Latino” or “Not Hispanic or Latino.” This has meant that Hispanics have been free to self-identify with any race they feel accurately describes them–a choice that has produced some confusion. Given that freedom, a slight but increasing majority of Hispanics have chosen to describe themselves as white (53% in 2010, up from 47.9% in 2000).

screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-6-03-14-pm

But by collapsing the ethnicity and race questions into one general question, the next census may change that.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-3-55-23-pm
Possible 2020 census question for race/Hispanic origin.

Having Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin appear next to other race options may encourage Hispanics who had previously considered themselves white to simply identify as “Hispanic”–after all, Spain is notably absent from the countries listed under “white.” As Mike Gonzalez writes for National Review:

The proposed census form defines “white” as “German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, etc.” For “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish,” the definition is “Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian, etc.”

Now, if you’re a Mexican American who has always considered yourself white because of your Spanish ancestry, you have one choice. You would never check a box designated for persons of German, Irish, or other origins north of the Pyrenees, because that doesn’t describe you. So the only choice you have is Hispanic.

Social definitions of race are neither static nor universal…nor immune to bureaucracy

This is far from the first time bureaucratic lines around race and ethnicity have been redrawn. Different federal policies and amendments thereto have led people to alter their racial and ethnic identities for hundreds of years in America.

The most obvious example would be the term “Hispanic,” which was first officially used in the 1970s. It’s more of a political and bureaucratic convenience than a valid anthropological grouping, and is rarely used outside of the United States. Yet today many Americans celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, listen to “Hispanic music”, and identify as Hispanics.

Another example would be Indian Americans’ historical flirtation with different racial categories. In the early 1900s, there were several court cases in which individual Indian Americans were determined to be white and non-white, depending on the case. In 1930 and 1940, the census listed “Hindu” as a race, but in 1970 Indians were instructed to self-report as “white.”

By 1980, that had changed again and Indian Americans were grouped under “Asian.” However in 1990, 10% of respondents with Indian origins self-identified as “white” and 5% self-reported as “black,” despite being specifically instructed to check “Asian” by the census. Non-Asian identification rose in generations removed from immigration. Among US-born South Asians, the portion that identified as white rose to 25% in 1990.

Allowing greater leeway in racial reporting has also yielded significant demographic changes.

A change to census policy beginning in 1960 allowed respondents to self-report race, rather than require verification from a local enumerator. As a result, the Native American population has since exploded in a way that can not be explained by birth rates or immigration. A 2000 change that allowed respondents to select multiple races furthered this trend.

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Taken from HUD website

Tilting at windmills

The best lesson is that race in America has nothing to do with biology and is as informed by politics as much as it informs them. Racial identities are more idiosyncratic and plastic than we tend to think of them as being. The census doesn’t–and cannot–tell us about the actual genealogical diversity of America; what it actually measures is our collective perception thereof. That perception and the metrics by which we assess it are constantly changing.

The great irony here is that the OMB and the Census Bureau are both causing and reacting to changes in perceptions of racial identity in America! In order to ask questions the way they think respondents want to hear them, they inadvertently place their thumbs on the scale. Even though racial and ethnic data are self-reported, they will always be influenced by the definitions put forth by the OMB.