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"Who Thought of Dropping Racial Categories, and Why?,"

by john a. powell January/February 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

The Office on Management and Budget is considering eliminating the racial and ethnic categories currently used by the Census Bureau in gathering data and compiling statistics. If the question is whether our government should continue to use categories of race and collect data based on racial and ethnic classifications, my answer is "Yes." So long as American society is organized around race-i.e., racialized-- our government should continue to compile statistics based on race.

The best thing to be said about our 200-year experience with Census statistics on race is that, almost inadvertently, it produced something truly important: a broad view of racial disparity. The statistics present an unsentimental education in American realities. Readers (reviewers, planners, demographers, lawyers and politicians) have learned that poverty and wealth, residence and occupation, lifestyle and life expectancy with the tendency in the multiracial movement to confuse issues related to multiracial identity with the desire to pursue relations with members of a different race and to glamorize the "multicultural melting pot" and multiracial existence. On the other hand, it is clear that conflict over racial categorization in the Census articulated by this new multicultural movement is one way to expand the boundaries of how we think about race.

In our society, many institutions, interactions and systems of distribution and power are racialized. Dropping racial categories from the Census will not alleviate the racial hierarchy that supports the systems of resource distribution in American society. In fact, it would leave the systems of distribution of both public and private resources--and our notions of identity-intact but less visible. Modifying statistical categories to dilute or refract racial data is ineffectual, unless the desired effect is obscuring the reality of racial disparity.

The impetus for initiatives like e-race-ing the Census count is generated in part by an awareness that race as a biological fact is problematic. However, the fact that race is socially constructed does not establish that race lacks meaning or force. Religion and nationality are also socially constructed. They are, nonetheless, like race, social facts. Race certainly has meaning and force, in terms of individual identity and power as well as social organization and domination. The use of purported genetic differences among races to justify subordination and exclusion is one example of the meaningfulness of race.

The social constructedness of race in America means that no one person controls it. The category I check on my Census form is not determinative. Whether I see myself as black, Negro, African American, multiracial, or Other is only part of the equation. When I visit the suburbs to shop for a house, my race is important-to my realtor and potential neighbors, as well as to me. The taxi driver who passes me on the street is not concerned with what was put on my Census form. Race is not simply a noun; race is a verb. It is what we do in ordering our society. It is not so simple to elect not to be "raced." Until this social reality shifts, we must be able to observe and chart race through statistics such as the Census count.

Of course, racial identity and racial meaning have shifted over time. This, too, is part of what it means to say that race is socially constructed. Racial identity and meaning will likely continue to shift. There is, however, no indication that race as a societal organizing mechanism will disappear. In its current and future guises, race seems destined to contribute to our notions of identity and destined to direct resource distributions.

Without racial statistics, we will not know how distributions of resources affect racial and ethnic groups. Without them, racism, which is still very much a part of our society, will be that much harder to identify, that much more difficult to eradicate, and that much more likely to remain a societal norm. Dropping race categories will only strengthen our disturbing racial reality.

I wonder who thought of this change in the Census, and why.

john a. powell is Secretary of PRRAC's Board, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he directs the Institute on Race & Poverty (415 Law Ctr., 229 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455. 612/625-5529, E-mail:

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