Race has never been a simple issue in America. But when the 1990 census asked people their race, it got a quarter-million different write-in responses.
Responses such as "a little bit Norwegian," "a little of everything," "California boy," "Layocean," "a living soul," "a fine blend," "Heinz 57," and just plain "steak sauce."
Most of those 8 million write-ins were from people of Hispanic descent, said Roderick Harrison, chief of the Race Statistics Branch at the Census Bureau. They apparently didn't like the options offered black, white, American Indian or Asian-Pacific Islander. So they checked "other race" and wrote in
answers such as "brown," "Mexican-American" and "Mexican."
Other write-ins came from Asian-Pacific islanders who couldn't find a subcategory they liked and American Indians who were asked to identify their tribes.
But there were about 200,000 folks whose responses were, well, "uncodeable," in census talk. People who wrote in things such as: "Son of God," "child of God," "none of your business" and "NOYB."
This year, for the first time, spiffy new technology enabled the census to decipher each and every write-in answer to the race question. (In 1980, only a small sample was read.)
The census computer was able to sort and assign about 85 percent of those "unique responses" to a racial group.
But the computer could not match about 200,000 quirky, smart-aleck and just plain weird answers such as "golden child," "extraterrestrial" and "alien," "exotic hybrid," "exchange student," "half and half," "fat pig," "father adopted, race unknown," "all of the above," "handicapped," and "exquisite."
Or pets' names. Or animal species. Or -- "Call me at my day number."
For these truly special answers, specialists were called in.
"We had people who had special expertise in American Indian tribes, we had reference books," said Juell Young, a census analyst. "We would have discussions about entries that posed difficulties."
These discussions got hot -- as hot as they get among statisticians, anyway -- over matters such as: Was someone who wrote in "Mauritan" a native of the Indian Ocean island, Mauritius? Or from the African nation, Mauritania?
To solve such brain teasers, researchers phoned embassies, checked atlases and queried scholars, checking migration patterns and other clues.