PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Racial/Ethnic Categories: Do They Matter?,"

by Lawrence Wright & Chester Hartman November/December 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

Last fall, the House Subcommittee on Census, Statistics and Postal Personnel, chaired by Rep. Thomas Sawyer (D-OH), held a series of hearings on modification of the existing racial categories used by the Census and on the larger question of whether it is proper for the government to classify people according to arbitrary distinctions of skin color and ancestry. The issue is of deep interest to scientists, government agencies that collect data, and, of course, to advocacy groups in the various minority communities concerned with group entitlements.

Census statistics are crucial for so many reasons. "Congressional districts rise and fall with the shifting demographics of the country," as Wright notes. And program funding of all sorts is a function of how many people are placed in each category-"the numbers drive the dollars," as Sawyer puts it.

The government agency responsible for determining standard classifications of racial and ethnic data is the Office of Management & Budget. OMB's 1977 Statistical Directive 15, which controls these categories for all federal forms and statistics, recognizes four general racial groups in the US: American Indian or Alaskan Native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Black; and White. With regard to ethnicity, Directive 15 also recognizes Hispanic Origin and Not of Hispanic Origin. "The categories," as Wright notes, "ask that every American fit himself or herself into one racial and one ethnic box."

Rep. Sawyer makes this trenchant observation: "We are unique in this country in the way we describe and define race and ascribe to it characteristics that other cultures view very differently." Noting the various immigration waves the country has experienced, including the current streams, Sawyer goes on to say that the racial categories and distinctions used "inevitably reflect the temporal bias of every age. That becomes a problem when the nation itself is undergoing deep and historic diversification."


One obvious problem with the existing classification system is mixed-race persons, whose numbers are vast but not precisely known. There have been proposals to add a "Multiracial" category to the Census. The proportion of people who now check the Black box but could, because of mixed genetic heritage, check Multiracial, is at least 75% and may be as high as 90%. This proposed new category, Wright observes, "threatens to undermine the concept of racial classifi-cation altogether."

Some, of course, argue that would be no "threat" at all. "Multiracialism has the potential for undermining the very basis of racism, which is its categories," asserts G. Reginald Daniel of UCLA. But the impact on present programs could be catastrophic. School desegregation plans would be thrown into the air. Legislative districts would have to be redrawn. "The entire civil rights regulatory program concerning housing, employment and education," Wright notes, "would have to be reassessed . . . Those who are charged with enforcing civil rights laws see the Multiracial box as a wrecking ball aimed at affirmative action." While no one knows how many multiracial persons in fact would opt for that new category, "merely placing such an option on the Census invites people to consider choos-ing it," says Wright. He notes that when the Census listed "Cajun" as one of several examples under the ancestry question, the number of Cajuns jumped nearly 2,000%.

Multiracialism, of course, is the story of America ever since Columbus and his men stepped on our shores. Clearly, slavery fueled the process, as white slave-owners, in order to enlarge the slave population (as well as gratify their own lust) fathered tens of thousands of mixed-race "Negroes."

Census categories have constantly confused and been confused about race. "How unsettled this country has always been about its racial categories is evident in that fact that nearly every census since [the original 1790 Census] has measured race differently. "With regard to the most volatile racial category, until recently we had "that peculiar American institution known informally as the 'one-drop rule'," which defined as Black a person who had as little as a single drop of that mythical substance, "Black blood." The measure applied only to people of African descent. And it is, of course, a racist rule, two-way street: one did not jump over the white community by virtue of having' "white blood." (Wright notes that the rule may still be the law of the land, according to a 1986 Supreme Court decision.)

America, to be sure, has always had "Black" leaders who were to some extent "white"-Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lani Guinier, Douglas Wilder and Louis Farrakhan are a few of the more prominent names. Both whites and Blacks acceded in defining such persons as Black.

What would be the consequences of moving toward recognizing the true extent of multiracialism in the US? How, for example, would an affirmative action program be implemented? "Suppose," posits Wright, "a court orders a city to hire additional Black police officers to make up for past discrimination. Will mixed-race officers count? Will they count wholly or in part?" And the multiracial category obviously leads to even greater fractionalization, as the children of multiracial unions further subdivide. As more and more people, from all racial and ethnic groups, marry outside their group, this phenomenon intensifies. "The continual modulation of racial differences in America is increasing the jumble created by centuries of ethnic intermarriage," notes Wright.

The following examples illustrate the political-scientific jumble: "At times," notes Wright, "we have counted as 'races' different national groups, such as Mex-icans and Filipinos. Some Asian Indians were counted as members of a 'Hindu' race in the censuses from 1920 to 1940; then they became white for three decades. ... Canada dropped the race question from its census in 1951 and has so far resisted all attempts to reinstitute it." In the US, the American Civil Liberties Union tried to get the race question dropped from the 1960 Census, and New Jersey stopped entering race information on birth and death certificates in 1962 and 1963. But beginning in 1964, the Civil Rights era laws, notably the 196 Voting Rights Act, required such race data, and "the census soon acquired a political importance that it had never had in the past."

Vested Interest

OMB's 1977 Directive 15 was ostensibly an attempt "to provide a way for Americans to describe themselves," but in fact "the categories actually began to shape those identities. The categories became political entities, with their own constituencies, lobbies and vested interests." But "what was even more significant, they caused people to think of themselves in new ways-as members of 'races' that were little more than statistical devices." Asian or Pacific Islanders, probably the fastest growing racial group, due to immigration, are, according to Wright, a "'racial' group in the US.... that in all likelihood exists nowhere else in the world." The American Indian group has seen a demographically impossible 259% growth between 1960 and 1990, due in part to improved census taking procedures, but also to the fact that "Native Americans had become fashionable, and people now wished to identify with them."

"Whatever the word 'race' may mean elsewhere in the world, or to the world of science," Wright concludes about this stew, "it is clear in America the categories are arbitrary, confused and hopelessly intermingled. "Among the more startling findings: A National Center for Health Statistics study found that 6% of the people who called themselves Black were seen as white by a census interviewer; nearly a third of the people self-identifying as Asian and 70% of those self-identifying as American Indian were classified as white or Black by independent observers. A Centers for Disease Control & Prevention epidemiologist who analyzed deaths of infants from 1983 through 1985 found that in an astounding number of cases the infant's race was different on the birth and death certificates. (This finding led to staggering increases in infant mortality rates: 47% greater for American Indians, 79% for Filipinos.)

The Utility of Racial Data

Racial statistics serve an important purpose in monitoring and enforcing civil rights laws, and "indeed," as Wright notes, "that has become the main justification for such data." Credit and insurance redlining issues and enforcement of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act are one clear example of the key importance of racial data collection. "Hiring practices, jury selection, discriminatory housing patterns, apportionment of political power-in all these areas and more," Wright notes, "the government patrols society, armed with little more than statistical information to insure equal and fair treatment." He quotes the CDCP epidemiologist referred to above as saying, "We need these categories essentially to get rid of them."

This leads into the heavy and controversial political question of targeted vs. universal approaches to remedying racial injustice [not unrelated to the discussion of reparations for slavery in this and the past two issues of Poverty & Race]. "The unwanted corollary of slotting people by race," says Wright, "is that such officially sanctioned classifications may actually worsen racial strife. By creating social welfare programs based on race rather than on need, the government sets citizens against one another precisely because of perceived racial differences."

A big question, then: Does the use of racial statistics create, or exacerbate, a reality of racial divisions, which then require resolutions, such as busing, affirmative action and multicultural education, "all of which are bound to fail, because they heighten the racial awareness that leads to contention?" Relatedly: would creation of a Multiracial category merely reinforce the concept of race in the first place? California State Univ.-LA sociologist Yehudi Webster says this actually might be a good move, "another leap into absurdity," a continuation of the "one-drop" principle. "Anybody can say, 'I've got one drop of something-I must be multiracial.' It may be a good thing. It may finally convince Americans of the absurdity of racial classification."

Another political issue is what happens within the Black community if multiracialism is acknowledged statistically. Los Angeles Times writer Itabai Njeri maintains that the social and economic gap between light- and dark-skinned Blacks is as great as the gap between Blacks and whites in America. "If people of more obviously mixed backgrounds were to migrate to a Multiracial box, she says, they would be politically abandoning their former allies and the people who need their help the most." This, of course, parallels the phenomenon of middle-class Blacks moving to the suburbs, leaving few role models in inner-city communities, one of the alleged causes of the growing "underclass."

What's Next?

The OMB, which recently held a set of hearings on the subject, is giving some thought to eliminating racial categories altogether. Political considerations apart, mixed-race children and their parents express great anguish about having to deny part of their heritage or fit themselves into obviously erroneous categories. The National Academy of Sciences will be issuing a study and report on the subject early next year.

But, asks Wright, "is it any accident that racial and ethnic categories should come under attack now, when being a member of a minority group brings certain advantages?.... The nonwhite population of America has historically been subjugated and treated as second class citizens by the white majority. It is to redress the social and economic inequalities of our history that we have civil rights laws and affirmative action plans in the first place. Advocates of various racial and ethnic groups point out that many of the people now calling for race-blind society are political conservatives, who may have an interest in undermining the advancement of nonwhites in our society. Suddenly, the conservatives have adopted the language of integration, it seems, and the left-leaning racial identity advocates have adopted the language of separatism. It amounts to a polar reversal of political rhetoric." UNC professor Jon Michael Spencer, writing in The Black Scholar, asserts: "To relinquish the notion of race-even though it's a cruel hoax-at this particular time is to relinquish our fortress against the powers and principalities that still try to undermine us." Most important, he writes, is the "need to galvanize peoples around the racial idea of Black."

Congressman Sawyer concludes: "We wind up with precise counts of everybody in the country, and they are precisely wrong. They don't reflect who we are as a people. To be effective, the concepts of individual and group identity need to reflect not only who we have been but who we are becoming. The more these categories distort our perception of reality, the less useful they are. We act as if we knew what we're talking about when we talk about race, and we don't."

The Sawyer Subcommittee hearings, "Review of Federal Measurements of Race & Ethnicity" (April 14, June 30, July 29, Nov. 3, 1993), are available from Subcommittee staff member Chris Col-lins, 515 O'Neill House Office Bldg., Wash., DC 20515, 202/226-7523. The Subcommittee at this point is awaiting OMB recommendations before deciding whether to submit legislation.

OMB held three 1994 hearings (Boston, July 7; Denver, July 11; SF, July 14) on the racial and ethnic categories used by the Federal agencies. The Federal Register notice of these hearings had useful background on the history of Directive 15, the suggested changes and criticisms, how federal agencies use racial and ethnic data, as well as the text of the Directive. Well send a copy of these 5 pages with a SASE The public comments submitted to OMB in response to the Federal Register notice may be reviewed at OMB's Public Reading Room, 725 15th St. NW, Wash., DC; phone, 202/395-6880. Further information on MB's plans are available from Suzann Evinger, 202/395-3093.

Finally, the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academy of Sciences held a workshop last February, at OMB's request, to hear the views of various government agencies and social scientists. Among those participating in the workshop were Leo Estrada, Reynolds Farley, Robert Hauser, Charles Kamasaki, Michael Omi and David Williams. The Committee will issue its report early next year, and OMB presumably will await this report (which will contain no recommendations, only findings) before deciding whether to make any revisions in the existing categories. To get on the mailing list for the Committee's report, or obtain further information about the study, contact Barry Edmonston at the Committee, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW, Wash., DC 20418, 202/334-2550.

Chester Hartman is Director of Research at PRRAC.

Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List