Counting America: An Argument for Racial and Ethnic Classifications

In 1997, three years prior to the 2000 Census count, there were some general complaints about the way in which data about race and ethnicity was collected in the United States. Some people of mixed-race heritage complained that they were forced to choose one racial background over another on census forms, when, in truth, they embraced all aspects of their racial heritage. Others held the opinion that racial and ethnic classifications shouldn’t be used at all. They helped stoke tensions in the United States, they said, and prevented us from being a truly colorblind society. Others complained that the census excluded numbers of poor and minorities in this country because of the methods in which the head counts were conducted. While I agree with those who say that the census excludes scores of people, I disagree with those who say racial and ethnic classifications should be abandoned. Racial and ethnic classifications may be problematic, but they are necessary tools in monitoring racial progress and discrimination in the United States.

Without the data collected through these classifications, it would be difficult to understand the various changes in our society and the effect they will have, particularly on minorities. One of those changes, of course, is in population growth. Here in California, the population has changed so dramatically over the past decade that it has affected everything from redistricting plans to politics. Census bureau statistics already state that California is increasingly becoming a “brown” state, driven by immigration growth and birth rates. Since 1990, the Hispanic community in California grew by 2.4 million, the largest growth of any state in the nation (some of that growth was related to high birth rates among Hispanic women). Asian and Native American communities also saw their populations grow by 990,000 and 309,000 respectively. Changes such as these cannot be underestimated or ignored. Former Governor Pete Wilson learned that lesson during his gubernatorial reelection campaign in 1998. He lost the Hispanic vote because of his support of Prop. 187 two years earlier, thus losing the election to Gray Davis (Davis would later lose to Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger during a recall campaign). This election year, the Republican Party in California is determined not to make the same mistake again. They, along with the Democrats, are actively pursuing the Hispanic vote. Changes in population overall have had other affects on Californian politics. After Census 2000, the state picked up two more electoral votes, making it an even more important voting bloc during national elections. The ever-shifting changes in minority population, particularly among Hispanics, will no doubt play a determining role in how candidates will manage their campaigns when they swing through the Golden State (the recent campaign against illegal immigration of course is a recent development, one that no doubt will affect future election years).

Changes in minority population also determine how state, local, and congressional districts will be drawn for elections. Since the Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of redistricting along racial lines to ensure that people of color will continue to be politically represented, such statistics become even more relevant, since even the smallest population changes within a given district can effect how it will be drawn for later elections. Such changes effect whether or not minorities, particularly African Americans, will be ably represented in Washington, D.C. Studies have shown that black candidates have a difficult time running and winning in majority white districts. One glance on the Senate floor in Washington can offer proof of this. Not since Carol Moseley Braun, has there been a black Senator. Ms. Braun, during her term, was only one of one hundred senators in Congress who was African American (Sen. Barack Obama has since entered the Senate for the state of Illinois). The same problem exists even in the governor seats across the country. As long as problems such as the lack of political representation persist, then it will be necessary to keep track of minority populations in America in order to find ways to properly redress them. Districts are not always drawn in such a way to equalize the minority vote, but information about the changes in population are still needed if minority groups are to challenge redistricting plans in court.

Statistics on the changes in family and class status within the minority community are just as equally important. Such information provides a snapshot of how people of color are progressing due to the social and antiracist programs that were created to level the playing field and whether such programs are still necessary. First, census data keeps track of trends in migration, family and household poverty, income inequality and social mobility, fertility rates, particularly among new immigrants, and the racial and ethnic gaps in education preparedness. The data collected on these issues can be useful tools to policymakers, community activists, nonprofit organizations, and think tanks in not only understanding the help needed for marginalized groups, such as accessible healthcare, but also for understanding the best ways to deliver such services, and analyzing the underlying issues that prevent people from getting access to them. Statistics can only provide a snapshot, but it is up to analysts to expand that picture for better understanding.

Second, statistical analysis can determine what government programs or policies will be expanded to provide greater help to minorities. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicaid, affirmative action, Welfare Reform, and business and mortgage loans that are awarded to minority businesses and families are greatly enhanced by an understanding of how effective these programs are in assisting people of color. They also monitor discrimination in employment, housing, and education, as well as issues concerning poverty, such as poor housing conditions in rural and urban areas, overcrowding, chronic unemployment, and heavy dropout rates. While it is necessary to point out that such analysis often falls on deaf ears in state assembly halls or on Capitol Hill, their necessity should not be undervalued. As I stated before, nonprofits, community activists, and policymakers also use this data to further research areas involving these issues and are used by lobbyists to garner votes for particular bills that address them. Shifts in policies and programs are a long, drawn out process that requires a change in attitude not only among politicians but the general public, as well. Analysis is just one means in which this may be done.

Statistical analysis not only helps change, create, or better enforce new social programs and laws, they can also be used to challenge the constitutionality of laws already on the books. One important way in which racial and ethnic classifications can judge the constitutionality in certain laws are in how the criminal justice system treats minorities. By matching the population of, say, African Americans in society with the number of Blacks behind bars, analysts can conclude whether sentencing rates for black men are comparable to that of whites. Such analysis can offer empirical evidence of how racism or unfairness in the system still exists, evidence that can be useful in front of state or federal courts in judging the fairness in the application of drug sentencing laws or the death penalty.

Furthermore, racial and ethnic classifications provide a bigger snapshot of who we are as a nation of citizens. They monitor diversity in school districts and colleges, neighborhoods, and the work place. They tell us which direction marriage, family, health, social mobility, and voting trends among minorities are headed in the future. They also provide information about other aspects of our culture, such as the media. The essay, “Virtual Integration: How the Integration of Mass Media Undermines Integration,” by authors Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown (Rereading America), draws the conclusion that television creates a false impression that the United States is far more integrated than it actually is. They quote from or use as sources many surveys that strengthen their argument. Various think-tank groups have sought to analyze the presence of minorities working in the entertainment industry. Their usage of the population of African Americans or Latinos, for instance, in the general society to compare with overall representation in the media is an obvious sign of how such statistics can paint a bigger picture of the racial issues that still persist in our country. While anecdotal evidence is certainly useful in providing a more personal or intimate reflection of race or racism in the U.S., only statistical analysis can prove the irrefutable argument of how far the United States has come since the civil rights era and how far it needs to go to achieve its goals of racial equality.

So far, I have discussed how racial and ethnic classifications on census forms have been useful in monitoring racial progress in the United States, but I would be remissed if I didn’t go into greater detail about the concerns its detractors have of them, since their anxieties are undeniably valid. One of those concerns involve how racial classifications exclude people of mixed race. Though the United States census only counted two racial groups—“free” whites and black “slaves”—in its beginning, by the 1970s, it has broadened to include four different groups, along with some 160 subgroups. These groups are as follows: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, and White, along with Hispanic origin and Not of Hispanic origin (Hispanics are considered as ethnics and therefore can be of any race, i.e., Veronica Chambers in her essay “Secret Latina at Large,” (ReReading America)). They have since been revised as follows: American Indian or Alaska Native; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White, with a sixth category, Some Other Race (two minimum ethnicities, Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino, have also been added). As I have previously stated, many people of mixed race argued that having to choose only one box on the census form forced them to decide between one racial background over the other. While children born of mixed race in the United States are hardly new (in fact, it is as American as apple pie), with a history going back as far as the early colonial settlements, a new cultural awareness and pride toward being of mixed race is. Arguing eloquently and passionately about their right to embrace every facet of their racial heritage, they insisted that they be allowed to do so legally, whether on census forms or employment applications. In 1997, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), after facing criticism about the limitations in the classifications, revised them so that people of mixed race will be able to choose more than one race on the census form. The first time they were allowed to do so was on the 2000 Census. 2.4%, or 6.8 million Americans chose more than one race on the census form, certainly proving that a minor change in the method of counting citizens can broaden our understanding of who they are and how they identify themselves.

Granted, there have been others who were against the counting of mixed race on census forms. Many civil rights groups were concerned that it would dilute the amount of money earmarked to social programs designed to equal the playing field for African Americans. If someone who is by all purposes considered Black also marks Asian, Native American, and White on the census form, will she still be eligible to some of those services that were made specifically for Blacks? That is at the heart of the issue that has divided so many civil rights organizations. Another problem with the census that has concerned such groups as the NAACP, is the method in which citizens are counted. Many counter that the Census Bureau does not do a thorough enough job conducting door-to-door head counts, and often excludes hundreds if not thousands of Americans, many of whom happen to be poor and of color. The number of people who are left out of the count could mean the loss of millions of dollars to states, as well as affect how districts are drawn. In 1997, Congress argued over adjusting the methods in which the head counts were conducted by using sampling methods to adjust the raw numbers taken from original head counts. The Democrats, particularly the Black Democratic Caucus and mayors from major urban cities, were in favor of such adjustments, since, they believed, it was their constituencies who were being severely marginalized. On the other hand, Republicans were against any changes in the methods. They believed that sampling methods were flawed and prone to error, therefore rendering any data collected by the Census Bureau as inaccurate. After a long debate, the Census Bureau rejected the use of sampling methods as a foundation to redraw local, state, and congressional districts. This past year, they also declined to release data used for sampling methods, thus touching off criticism by the Democrats, as well as instigating several lawsuits filed by state and county districts. One lawsuit, filed by Oregon state senators, countered that about 43,000 people would go unaccounted for in their state without the adjusted data. Another lawsuit headed by Los Angeles have been joined by other cities and counties over the Census Bureau’s decision not to use adjusted data for redistricting.

While the limitations in racial and ethnic classifications and the methods in which citizens are actually counted point out serious flaws, they are not so serious that collecting data on minorities or the poor ought to be eliminated. Rather, the struggle that many people and organizations such as the NAACP are engaged in to make the census more inclusive proves their necessity all the more.

Many opponents of racial and ethnic classifications say that they cause racial tensions in this country. Rather than embracing the plurality that is the glue of the United States, they point out our differences. Only by getting rid of them, they say, will we be able to achieve the true colorblind society that great men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of. Such arguments are dangerously naive. While opponents of racial and ethnic classifications are correct when they point out that they are a throwback to this country’s racist past, they are wrong when they suggest that by getting rid of them, we will be rid of racism, too. Racism is a far deeper and pernicious problem in the United States. Getting rid of a manifestation of it only attacks the surface of the problem, not the problem itself. Racial and ethnic classifications, as flawed as they are, allow us the chance to monitor the true progress this country has made since the civil rights era. Look at it this way, marathon runners are often timed so they can monitor how fast they run per mile, and the possible records they break. Racial progress in the United States should be monitored in the same way. As the old saying goes: we can’t know where we’re going, unless we know where we’ve been. The data collected from the racial and ethnic classifications on census forms keeps us all from ambling in the dark in our determination to achieve equality and the ultimate embodiment of this nation’s democratic ideals.