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"On the Census Race and Ethnic Categories,"

by Nathan Glazer March/April 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

The first round of responses on the question of whether and how the racial/ethnic categories in the Census and other government statistics should be modified shows the enormous problems involved in getting agreement on any set of categories. We have moved from the first Census of 1790, and a situation in which we distinguished only between whites and blacks-easy enough then, as the two categories were defined in law so that the line between the two races was absolutely clear-to one m which endless confusion prevails. More than 40% of the short Census form, which every person must respond to, now consists of complicated questions on race and Hispanic origin, as if the chief business of govermnent was to pigeonhole people by these categories. Why are they more important thanquestions on education, place of birth, citizenship, housing, income, occupation and a host of other valuable items of information? This alone should embarrass us, and should lead us to consider seriously not only how we can improve these questions (whatever improvement means, which will be rather different depending on whom you ask) but also how we can reduce the prominence of racial-ethnic assignment in our Census. Do we want our Census, whose origin was simply to permit tbe proper representation of the people in Congress, to be a document whose primary purpose is to assign the population to race and ethnic groups? Alas, the development of public policies judged increasingly by their differential impact on various ethnic and racial groups makes this development almost inevitable.

The categories we use should serve two purposes. One is to accurately reflect categories that are in fact socially significant-for politics, for social life, for culture, for personal identity-since one purpose of the Census is to give a picture of the American people. The second is to serve public policy, by providing the numbers that politicians and people insist upon to judge our progress in fairness and equality. There are inevitable contradictions between the two objectives, as is clear in the rise of groups insisting on their mixed-race character, something which public policy does not recognize. People insist on defining themselves properly, from their personal point of view, but it is a point of view that does not cohere with the categories public policy has defined. For the Census to take into account all the categories that are meaningful to people in defining themselves is of course impossible: the picture of the American people derived from the Census and official statistics will always be crude, drawn in broad brush strokes, and will have to be supplemented by nonofficial social research based on small samples. The Wall Street Journal for February 2 describes the explosion of politically relevant categories in the local politics of tolerant San Francisco, where a black male official challenges the appointment of a black female lesbian to some post on the ground that she will be more sympathetic to lesbians than to blacks, while the appointment is defended by a Hispanic lesbian. All the identities are relevant to San Francisco, only some should be relevant for the Census.

Clearly, the key division in Amencan society, from its origins, and from the first Census, has been between black and other. It is still the basic division, and its centrality is indicated by the relatively low rates of intermarriage between blacks and others, and the relatively high residential concentration of blacks, as compared to all other groups the Census defines as "races." But when it comes to almost all other groups, intermarriage leads to an abundance of multiple ethnic ancestries, and to a declining significance for many individuals of ethnic ancestry. This means that nonblack groups are less sharply defined, less significant for American history, and for the individuals identified with them, than are blacks. The Voting Rights Act and other legislation tries (quite wrongly) to assume an equivalence in the deprived status of all nonwhite racial groups and all Hispanic groups. The economic success of many Asian groups undermines this purely political assumption; the success of Cubans, politically and economically, and the differences in economic and educational achievement among Hispanic groups, also undermines it. Asians were once subject to a fierce legal discrimination, Mexican Americans were subject to political and social (and to some extent legal) discrimination, but there is no comparison between the status of Asian-American and Hispanic groups and blacks.

To have a line-up of races in the Census that lists white, black, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Asian Indian, etc., is false both to the limited scientific validity of racial difference and to the social significance of the varied groups. To distinguish specific Asian groups, considered separate "races" in the Census, from European ethnic groups, considered all of one "race," makes no sense, except that for no good reason the voting rights of the former are given specific protection while those of the latter are not. The children of Greek or Irish immigrants on the one hand, and Korean and Asian Indian immigrants on the other, are equally likely to intermarry, to go to college, and to get good jobs-except that the Asians will probably do better than the Europeans.

The key categories, to my mind, should be, first, black and other; second, foreign-born, by country, and native. One virtue of these two key distinctions is that they are less ambiguous and muddy than most others. The category of children of foreign-born is also a useful one. The effort by the new ancestry question to form a category of all persons of a specific ethnic ancestry, including those of the third generation and beyond, is for the most part a failure, as Stanley Lieberson and Mary Waters have shown in their book From Many Strands. It is true that among the nonblack groups some are more insular and have sharper boundaries than others. Jews were once such, but with intermarriage rates today of 50%, the degree to which they can be separated out from the white group in general is declining-part-Jews will in a generation be relatively as numerous as part-Italians, and what the significance of this "partness" will be is something that should be left to social scientists, rather than something that should bother the Census.

What then happens to various Hispanic groups, the Asian groups? The two questions-black and other, foreign-born and other-will tell us who is foreign-born from various Latin American and Asian countries, just as we know who is foreign-born from various European countries. We will know the numbers of those who are the children of the foreign-born, who are generally married to the foreign-born of the same origin. For further generations, we will assume they are all Americans, of varied ethnic and racial backgrounds, which is increasingly the reality. This approach would abandon the Hispanic category and its variants (although presumably it is politically impossible to do so). Native Americans (American Indians) have a legal definition: it is not necessary to get their numbers from the Census. It should be possible for them to distinguish themselves in responding to the Census reports, but it is the legal count that should be relevant, not the inflated report of Native American or part Native American identity.

Reynolds Farley, in his contribution to the January/February Poverty & Race symposium, has made a heroic effort to simplify the present blooming and buzzing confusion, and to take account of the political realities that have distinguished five categories, as used in present-day affirmative action and antidiscrimination law and regulations. His effort does not take account of the many who would not want to place themselves in one of the five categories he identifies. They are the mixed," and insist on at least two identities from among these five. They should be given a sixth line to respond to. If that is done, I would consider his approach a reasonable middle ground between the present situation, which is unsatisfactory, and the approach I suggest, in which the Census first would find out who is black, by self-identity, then who is foreign-born and from what country, and perhaps go on to find out who is the child of foreign-born parents, from what country. The special prominence given to Asian groups (presumed each to be a "race") and to Hispanic groups (presumed all to be distinctively victimized) would be abandoned. We would not even have to ask who is "mixed"-we would assume they are simply numerous among all who do not define themselves as black and/or foreign-born, for that is increasingly the reality of America.

Nathan Glazer (12 Scott St., Cambridge, MA 02138) is co-editor of the quarterly The Public Interest, Professor of Education and Sociology Emeritus at Harvard University, and the author of books on race relations and public policy.
 
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