The Census and The Sopranos

Adventures in a post-racial America


It's fitting that the March release of preliminary data from the 2000 Census coincided with the third-season premiere of The Sopranos, HBO's popular and critically acclaimed series about suburban New Jersey mobsters. In their own ways, both the Census and The Sopranos foreground issues of ethnic identity. Both also reflect the breakdown of accepted notions of what those identities mean, and both raise questions about what might—or should—come next. Even as that breakdown gives rise to all sorts of social tensions and anxieties (witness ongoing debates over affirmative action), it is a development that is to be cheered. It points to a time when the United States may finally move beyond its long, tortured fixation on race and—more important—its history of according privilege on the basis of racial and ethnic categories.

Most of the news coverage of the early Census data stressed the increase in the number of Hispanics over the past decade, especially in relation to blacks, the country's largest minority group. Demographers have long predicted that Hispanics, who made up only 3.9 percent of the total U.S. population in 1960, would become the single largest minority group in America sometime early in the 21st century. That moment is about to arrive:Government figures estimate that last April 1, there were some 35.3 million Hispanics, just shy of 35.4 million non-Hispanic blacks. (Hispanics can be any race; they are defined by the Census as an ethnic category describing people of "Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin.")

While the number of blacks increased by about 21 percent over the past decade, the number of Hispanics increased by 60 percent. Most of this is due to immigration, which also explains the large percentage increase in non-Hispanic Asians, who saw their number grow by 74 percent since the 1990 Census, to a total of about 11.5 million. Non-Hispanic whites increased by about 5 percent since the last count, to about 198.2 million.

But the most interesting trends revealed by the Census are those that suggest a blurring of traditional racial and ethnic identities. It's worth underscoring that such "traditional" categories are mostly of relatively recent invention. While the U.S. Census has always asked a race question, such categories have never been stable. As Melissa Nobles, author of Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics, has written, official racial and ethnic categories have changed with almost every census, usually as a means of marginalizing those deemed not "white." The 1870 Census, for instance, included categories such as "white, black, mulatto, Chinese, and Indian." By 1920, the categories were "white, black, mulatto, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, Korean, and other." In fact, as an official Census category, "Hispanic" only dates back to 1970.

The 2000 Census, the first to let individuals designate themselves as multiracial, allows for 63 possible racial/ethnic combinations. This change, controversial when first proposed in the late '90s, reflects social reality even as it remakes it. Census bureau officials are inarguably correct when they stress (as one did to The New York Times) that "there is more diversity than ever before" in the United States. Yet it's also the case that the new categories encourage all people to think of themselves in ways that exceed or complicate existing designations. Mulling over the higher-than-expected multiracial numbers for blacks, Urban Institute demographer Jeffrey Pas?sell told The Washington Post, "It demonstrates a willingness, a desire to report more details about their genealogy."

While only about 2.4 percent of respondents (6.8 million) identified themselves as members of more than one race, most demographers expect that figure to climb to at least 20 percent by 2050. Evidence for this outcome can be gleaned from the responses of blacks to the Census. Overall, about 5 percent categorized themselves as being of more than one race. Younger blacks, however, were more likely to call themselves multiracial. Among blacks age 50 and older, for instance, 2.3 percent labeled themselves as being more than one race; for those ages 30 to 49, the figure was 3.1 percent; for those ages 18 to 49, it was 4.6 percent; and for those 17 or younger, it was 8.1 percent.

How will the appreciation for and articulation of multiracial identities play out? All Americans are likely to conceive of themselves in more and more individualized terms, not just regarding race and ethni?city, but in terms of other defining characteristics, too, including region, sexual orientation, class, and the like. With respect to racial and ethnic categories, the multiracial designation works to replace discrete, fixed categories with a far more nuanced appreciation for ever-changing, highly individualized diversity. It complicates any and all attempts to use race as a basic category of analysis or policy. In a world in which everyone is mixed, where everyone is a mongrel, it will be increasingly difficult to make appeals to old racial and ethnic categories.

This move away from rigid definitions of race and ethnicity is already underway. In his recent book, Against Race, cultural studies scholar Paul Gilroy argues against "lingering respect for the idea of race," even as he explores the effects of racism. In the public policy arena, the recognition of multiple racial and ethnic identities will make it increasingly harder for proponents of race-based quotas to press their case. The growing understanding that there is no unified racial or ethnic identity or experience is part of the reason why, as John Mc?Whorter, author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, notes, "Increasing numbers of enlightened and concerned thinkers, black and white, argue that we must end [racial preferences] now" and instead emphasize individual initiative and self-reliance.

So what does any of this have to do with The Sopranos? The show is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Not only does it draw HBO's best ratings, but a boxed set of its first season has sold over 500,000 units on videotape and DVD, and the cast was recently featured on the covers of Rolling Stone and TV Guide. A riveting mix of gruesome drama and black humor, The Sopranos follows the travails of Mafioso Tony Soprano, who suffers from panic attacks and is seeking psychological counseling (among other ailments, Tony literally passes out nearly every time he reaches for a slice of capicola).

The show can be profitably read as a meditation on a played-out ethnic identity—in this case, the Italian-American gangster—and the difficulty of forsaking such an identity even when it is no longer particularly useful, necessary, or beneficial.

Tony Soprano is not your father's Godfather: He has moved from the working-class neighborhoods that are the traditional province of Mafia capos and into an expensive suburb and a massive house described by the show's designer as "New Jersey elegant." Even as he continues to run his rackets and whack his enemies (and, on occasion, his friends), he is the model of upward mobility who wants to fit in with his upscale neighbors. His daughter attends Columbia (the missus sniffs at mere state schools), and his high-school-age son is similarly college-bound (to West Point, if Tony gets his way). He doesn't want his son to follow him into a life of crime and he similarly counsels the son of his deceased best friend to steer clear of the Mafia at all costs. Tony is a dinosaur, a dying breed who no longer needs to exist.

The great justifying myth surrounding the Mafia—recounted again and again in books such as The Godfather and Vincent Teresa's My Life in the Mafia—was that it represented the only way Italians could get ahead in an America hostile to Southern Europeans. Whether there was ever any truth to such a self-serving narrative, it is patently false in The Sopranos' universe: Many of Tony's wealthy neighbors are themselves Italian American, as is his doctor. He is highly ambivalent toward them, living among them yet mocking their relatively deracinated ways (they don't speak Italian, for example). But he also recognizes that he is simply a thug and it is this self-knowledge that imbues him with a tragic dimension—and those signature fainting spells. Try as he might, he cannot integrate the old Mafia lifestyle with his arriviste suburban setting.

Despite the disconnect, there is no suggestion that Tony could or would give up his life. Indeed, he's even quick to police old racial lines and tries to stamp out his daughter's first college romance with a part-black student. Tony's identity, which is irrevocably tied up with his ethnicity, is simultaneously his source of power and his source of neurosis. He is effectively paralyzed, unable to move beyond an ethnic identity that he recognizes doesn't work as it once might have.

As such a figure, he represents a cautionary tale for an America that is struggling to move beyond fixed notions of racial and ethnic identity and to embrace new definitions that make more sense in the contemporary world.

That is hardly an easy task, whether one is a member of a minority or the majority. It fills all of us with a great measure of anxiety, even as we recognize it as necessary. One reason Tony Soprano resonates so strongly with viewers is that his shaky position reflects our own.