The Nation: True Colors; The Confusion Over Who We Are

EVER since the framers of the Constitution reached a compromise to count black slaves as three-fifths of a person, racial numbers have been about political power. In contemporary America, the apportionment of political power on the basis of population, the use of race in the drawing of legislative districts and racial bloc voting have prompted people to inflate their numbers. Or at least fear their dilution. That was why several civil rights groups and the Congressional Black Caucus opposed allowing people to choose more than one race on the 2000 census.

But when the politics of racial numbers ran headlong into the desire of interracial couples to not have their children be forced to choose one race, the result was a Solomonic decision that may give a distorted picture of the nation’s racial landscape. Responding in part to political lobbying by civil rights organizations, the Clinton administration decided that people who designate themselves as both white and a member of a racial minority — the overwhelming bulk of the 6.8 million people who listed themselves as multiracial — will be counted as members of the minority. For example, people who say they are white and American Indian are counted by the federal government as American Indian.

The dizzying uncertainty over the best way to count people who list themselves as more than one race points out two of the starkest facts now emerging about America’s racial and ethnic profile: never have Americans been so diverse; never have they been so confused.

The expansion of the racial categories and the sharp increase during the 1990’s in the number of Hispanics, who can be of any race, has scrambled the racial landscape. It has also challenged the way the country looks at race. How, for example, should a people be counted? The way a government sees them or the way they see themselves?

If people can list themselves as an amalgam of race, should they then be asked how they think of themselves primarily? If the government can expand the officially designated racial categories from 5 to 63, why not expand them further? Is it the government’s role to ask people about their race at all? If not, how does it measure racial progress except by anecdote?

Since the census allocates political power as much as it sketches a portrait of the country, there is another abiding truth that flows out of the 2000 census: the answers to these questions will be worked out by politicians and interest groups, rather than scientists and demographers. Numbers are power, too important to be left to technocrats.

Expect creative solutions, some of which may create other problems. Modern black leaders may cringe at the comparison, but the compromise reached over how to count multiracial people is little more than a continuation of a tradition of political deals involving the census that began with the three-fifths compromise.

In this latest case, the compromise may have assuaged officials of traditional civil rights groups and parents of multiracial children, but at least one expert, Roderick J. Harrison, former head of the Census Bureau’s racial statistics branch, believes the solution may have made racial and ethnic statistics far less reliable.

Mr. Harrison, who helped design the racial question on the 2000 census form, now says that because people were given no guidance on how to answer it, many who listed themselves as more than one race may have done so not because their parents are of different races, but because they have an ancestor, possibly generations back, of another race.

Indeed, while the census does not ask people what they consider their primary race, the National Health Interview Survey, an annual survey that also allows people to list themselves as more than one race, has been doing just that. What it found, according to Mr. Harrison, was that in recent years 25.2 percent of the people who described themselves as both black and white considered themselves white; 46.9 percent who said they were white and Asian thought of themselves as white, and 80.9 percent who designated themselves as white and Indian believed themselves to be white.

Mr. Harrison argues that the gap between the number of people the government lists as a particular race and the number of people who think of themselves as being of that race not only adds to the confusion, but leaves the government figures open to legal challenge.

”What one could easily foresee, if I was called in as an expert witness and asked if this was a reasonable and fair way to count people, I would have to say no,” Mr. Harrison said.

How to count those who opt for the multiracial categories is not the only confusing issue flowing out of the census. Recently Orlando Patterson, the Harvard sociologist, has criticized the tendency of many newspapers, including The New York Times, to describe Hispanics who list themselves as whites as different from non-Hispanic whites. After all, 48 percent of Latinos list themselves as white. Drawing a distinction between these two groups has allowed the erroneous view to become popularized that by the middle of this century, ”whites” will be a minority in America, he says.

But Robert B. Hill, a statistician who is the vice chairman of a citizens advisory committee to the census, argues that while many Hispanic people may describe themselves as white, they may not see themselves that way. ”Many of those Hispanics who checked white feel they didn’t have much of a choice,” he said. ”They didn’t want to check black. They’re not going to check Asian. But they sure don’t see themselves as Anglos.”

While Professor Patterson and Mr. Hill would insist they disagree, they are in accord on a more fundamental question. They are both asking whether people should be classified with a particular group using the old criteria of skin color or language, or whether they should be classified based on behavior or attitudes.

Layered over the new, often muddled demographic landscape is the country’s love of numbers, and the political, social and psychological weight that the data carry. Liberal civil rights groups look at the expanding number of minorities and see a justification for policies like affirmative action. Conservatives look at the same numbers, and the growth of multiracial categories, and say race has become too fluid a concept to maintain race-based programs like affirmative action. Some groups, like Arab-Americans and people from the Indian subcontinent, look at the racial designations and seek categories of their own. Nativists see the numbers, particularly the shrinking proportion of non-Hispanic whites, and fan the flames of racial hatred.

”Especially in the Beltway, or in policy circles, numbers matter for good and bad reasons,” said Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. ”You would hope that policy makers would take into account information like statistics and base policy judgments on them. But they become more than that.”


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