Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action?


Susan Graham for Project RACE

If you think multiracial people have racial and ethnic problems in the United States, just look at what’s happening in Brazil. Forty-three percent of Brazilians self-identify as part pardo or brown. In the United States, multiracial people are about seven percent of the population. Their census has 136 classifications and ours has 57 for multiracial combinations.

Brazilians often do not identify as white or black, but fall into an assortment of names like dark nut, burnt white, and copper. It reminds me of the 1990s in the United States, when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was actually considering a “skin gradation chart” for their racial categories. Thank goodness that didn’t happen.

Brazil has a very complex history, which I won’t go into here, but 5.5 million Africans were forcibly transported to Brazil in its story of slavery. They have never been and are now no closer to a color-blind society than we are.

Affirmative action is very scary in Brazil. Many multiracial Brazilians are being rejected or thrown out of affirmative action programs for being too white. Whether you agree with the basics of affirmative action or not, will what’s happening in Brazil ever happen to us in the United States? Will affirmative action bite the dust rather than try to qualify its participants?

Schools there are setting up race boards to inspect future educational and job applicants, It may surprise you to learn that Louisiana, in fact, had “race clerks” to maintain the one-drop rule and ensure racial “purity” until 1977.  The race boards in Brazil may be the law soon. About 25 students were recently expelled from one of the leading universities for “defrauding” the affirmative action system when they were found to be not “black enough.”

One of the points we won in the 1990s in the United States was for self-identification on the census and on all other forms requiring racial and ethnic information. It was a very important victory, as important as having the ability to check more than one race. We should never forget that it was a huge win from the previous observer identification policy. In Brazil, people can self-identify, but identification is very different in Brazil, as F. James Davis wrote in Who is Black, “The implied rule is that a person is classified into one of many possible types on the basis of physical appearance and by class standing, not by ancestry.” There is a big difference in the way the two countries count by race.

The criteria used by those universities and employers in Brazil are indeed scary and include the following: Is the candidate’s nose short, wide and flat? How thick are their lips? Are their gums sufficiently purple? What about their lower jaw? Does it protrude forward? Candidates can be awarded points per item, like “hair type” and “skull shape.” So, the laws stipulate that an applicant’s race should be self-reported, but then accuses them of lying for affirmative action purposes. Many of these students are resorting to something called the Fitzpatrick scale that grades skin tone from one to seven, or whitest to darkest. It’s something we would, hopefully, never tolerate in the United States. Yet, the race commissions in Brazil have a lot of support from the black community.

The United States must be aware of the tactics utilized in Brazil and we have to learn from them. If affirmative action remains alive in our country, let’s make sure it is fair for our multiracial population.



Census Considers No Races

Census considers new approach to asking about race – by not using the term at all

2020 Census Question
Possible 2020 census race/Hispanic question for online respondents, who would click to the next screen to choose more detailed sub-categories such as “Cuban” or “Chinese.” Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

The Census Bureau is experimenting with new ways to ask Americans about their race or origin in the 2020 census – including not using the words “race” or “origin” at all. Instead, the questionnaire may tell people to check the “categories” that describe them.

Census officials say they want the questions they ask to be clear and easy, in order to encourage Americans to answer them, so the officials can better collect race and Hispanic data as required by law. But many people are confused by the current wording, or find it misleading or insufficient to describe their identity.

Census forms now have two questions about race and Hispanic origin. The first asks people whether they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, and states that “Hispanic origins are not races.” A second question asks, “What is this person’s race?” and includes a list of options with checkboxes and write-in spaces. The U.S. government defines Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race.

The problem with using the word “race” is that many Americans say they don’t know what it means, and how it is different from “origin.” The agency’s focus group research found that some people think the words mean the same thing, while others see race as meaning skin color, ancestry or culture, while origin is the nation or place where they or their parents were born.

2010 Census Question on Race and Ethnicity
2010 census form asks about race and Hispanic ethnicity separately. Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

The Census Bureau’s owndefinitions of race andHispanic origin, which follow government-wide rules from the Office of Management and Budget, sometimes appear to overlap. A white person, for example, is defined as someone “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.” Hispanic is defined as a person of “Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”

The confusion reflects a larger debate about how to define race, which used to be seen as a fixed physical characteristic and now more commonly is viewed as a fluid product of many influences. “We recognize that race and ethnicity are not quantifiable values,” the Census Bureau said in a 2013 report. “Rather, identity is a complex mix of one’s family and social environment, historical or socio-political constructs, personal experience, context, and many other immeasurable factors.”

In test-census forms to be sent to 1.2 million respondent households later this fall, the bureau will test the impact of alternative question wording that drops all mention of “race” or “origin” and asks: “Which categories describe person 1?” People then can choose from the list of races and origins. The National Content Test also will test combining the Hispanic and race questions into one, in part because many Latinos believe that Hispanicity is a race and do not identify themselves as white, black or another standard racial group.

The content test also will experiment with adding a new Middle East and North Africa category. The test represents the bureau’s final major research effort before locking down its proposed 2020 questionnaire wording.

The bureau’s Federal Register notice published last month invited comments on the proposed test. The agency’s plans received some positive feedback at the March meeting of its National Advisory Committee of outside experts.

“I’m very happy that they are going to test a question which gets away from the language of race and ethnicity because frankly that is just a quagmire, that language,” said Ann Morning, an advisory committee member and New York University race scholar. “No two people seem to be able to agree on what those terms mean.”

In follow-up comments in an email, Morning said she believes “the beauty of simply referring to ‘categories’ is that it avoids that problem of people getting hung up on the terminology. So I would expect this term will allow people to answer the question more quickly, and to feel more free to check more than one box if they wish, and to lead to a lower non-response rate on that question.”

Census Bureau Race InteractiveIf adopted, the changes would add to the long list of revisions over time in the way the decennial census has asked about race, which has been included in every count since the first one in 1790. Until 1960, Americans did not choose their own race on census forms; enumerators did it for them. Racial categories have changed extensively through the decades, and question wording also has been revised.

The word “color,” not “race,” was used in census-taker instructions and some census forms in the 1800s. The word “race” appeared for the first time in 1880 enumerator instructions that talked about “color or race,” and the use of both terms continued on census forms or instructions through 1940. The term “color” was dropped from the 1950 census form, but returned on the 1970 census form.

The word “race” was not included in the 1960 census or 1980 census. Instead, the forms asked, “Is this person­ –” and listed the racial categories.

Source: Pew Research


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Census Bureau Launches Instagram Account

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New Census Category?

US mulls Middle East-North Africa category for 2020 census


The federal government is considering allowing those of Middle Eastern and North African descent to identify as such on the next 10-year census, which could give Arab-Americans and other affected groups greater political clout and access to public funding, among other things.

The U.S. Census Bureau will test the new Middle East-North Africa (MENA) classification for possible inclusion on the 2020 census if it gets enough positive feedback about the proposed change by Sunday, when the public comment period ends.

Arab-Americans, who make up the majority of those who would be covered by the MENA classification, have previously been classified by default as white on the census, which helps determine congressional district boundaries and how billions of dollars in federal funding are allocated, among other things.

Those pushing for the MENA classification say it would more fully and accurately count them, thus increasing their visibility and influence among policymakers.

The Census Bureau plans to test it later this year by holding focus group discussions with people who would be affected by the proposed change. Congress would still have to sign off on the proposal before the change could be added to the 2020 census.

“We know the challenges,” says Hassan Jaber, who runs a Detroit-area social services group and serves on a census advisory board formed to evaluate Americans’ changing racial and ethnic identities. “It really does take rethinking … who we are as a population and what our needs are, (but) there are specific needs for Arab-Americans that are not being recognized and not being met.”

Jaber’s group, ACCESS, and others that serve U.S. Middle Eastern communities have been pushing for the new census classification, which could also allow people to identify under sub-categories such as Assyrian or Kurdish.

“Frankly, being under MENA will also give us a chance for the first time for minorities within the Arab communities, such as Chaldeans, Berbers and Kurds, to self-identify,” said Jaber, a Lebanese-American who serves on the U.S. Census’ National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations.

Arabs have been coming to America in large numbers since the late 19th century and their ranks have grown in recent decades due to wars and political instability in the Middle East, with many settling in and around Detroit, New York and Los Angeles. The Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, which had a sample size of about 3 million addresses, estimated that 1.5 million people were of Arab ancestry in 2006-10.

Although Jaber thinks the public comment and testing periods should go well, he said it could be difficult getting congressional approval. Some Republican lawmakers are generally critical of the expense and intrusion of the census and have sought to eliminate the community surveys, which, unlike the main decennial count, aren’t constitutionally mandated.

There also isn’t universal support for the proposed census change among those who could identify as Middle Eastern or North African.

Some have expressed concern about sharing such information with the government in a post-9/11 world. And some have said that keeping the status quo would let them feel more American.

“I’m not for it. … I feel I’m a Mayflower American,” said Eide Alawan, a 74-year-old son of a Syrian immigrant whose roots are mostly Arab.

Alawan, a diversity liaison at a Detroit hospital and interfaith outreach coordinator at the area’s largest mosque, said he knows there are benefits to having the category, but that he thinks the change would be divisive.

“We’re broken down into villages and countries (where we come from) – I don’t like that.”

Some older Middle Eastern immigrants or their descendants live with the legacy of U.S. laws in the early 20th century that excluded Asians from entry and at one point included Syrians and others from the eastern Mediterranean. Groups were formed to fight those decisions and eventually the Middle Eastern immigrants were deemed white and were allowed to become citizens.

Sally Howell, an associate professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn and author of several books on Arabs and Muslims in Detroit, said that argument is common among “people that were raised in an America that was more polarized along black and white lines.” But she added younger people generally are “less eager to see the world in those binary terms,” and the census should reflect that.

No matter what happens, identity would remain a choice, but she said an evolving population requires asking new questions.

“We need to kind of rethink who Arab-Americans are, really. The community has changed radically over the last 25-30 years,” she said. “The only way we’re going to have a good sense of the changes is if we have good data to work with.”

Source: AOL News and AP

Hispanics turn white?

Over a million Hispanics turned white between the 2000 and 2010 Census

Research from Carolyn Liebler, Sonya Rastogi, Leticia Fernandez, James Noon, and Sharon Ennis working with anonymized Census data shows that about 8 million Americans changed their race or Hispanic status between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census. A lot of this is churn. Some people who identify as mixed race in one Census pick a single race in the next, and others go in the other direction.

But one interesting source of net flows is that in their panel of linked data about two million people switched from describing themselves as Hispanic members of “some other race” to being Hispanic members of the white race, while only about one million people switched in the other direction. These figures should be an undercount of what’s in the total population, since not everyone is represented in their set of linked data.


Five Racial Groups?

Wow, I’d add that a “major adjustment” in 1997 was the ability to check more than one race on the U.S. Census! -Susan

Are There Really Just Five Racial Groups?

How the government developed its racial-classification system.
Asian child.


For the first time in history, more than half of American children under the age of 1 are members of a minority group, according to figures released Wednesday by the Census Bureau. Everyone is familiar with the federal government’s classification of race and ethnicity—white, black or African-American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Why did we settle on these particular groupings?

Because they track discrimination. Officials from the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for maintaining the nation’s racial-classification system, have always admitted that the categories have no scientific or anthropological basis. They were designed in the 1970s to help track compliance with civil rights laws, and are meant to identify groups that are vulnerable to discrimination. There are other considerations, as well. The geographic nature of the categories—aside from Hispanic, which has always been the most nebulous because of its linguistic basis—are supposed to make it reasonably easy for Americans to identify their own backgrounds. Individual federal agencies may choose to split up the OMB categories for more detailed data. The Census Bureau, for example, breaks “Asian” into several subgroups, such as Asian Indian, Chinese, and Filipino.

Our modern racial-classification system is far from the first in U.S. history. The federal government asked about race indirectly (are you a slave or a free man?) in the inaugural census from 1790—although more for the purposes of the “Three-Fifths Compromise” than to prevent discrimination. In addition, early American law limited citizenship to whites, so the census had to distinguish between whites and everyone else. (African-Americans became eligible for citizenship in 1868, Native Americans in 1924, and Asian-Americans in 1954.) As people of different backgrounds intermarried and interbred, the government’s attempts to delineate people by race became increasingly tortured. For example, the 1890 census categories were white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian. (Census takers carried detailed instructions on how to explain the groupings.) Race categories continued to vary for most of the 20th century. The 1920 census listed the races as “White, Black, Mulatto, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, Korean, and Other.” The 1960 census used different terminology, listing “White, Negro, American Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Other.”

When the OMB set up its first government wide racial-classification system in 1977, just four major races (American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, black, and white) and two ethnicities (Hispanic and non-Hispanic) were included. Anthropologists criticized the new plan for its arbitrary distinction between race and ethnicity, and advocated lumping Hispanic in with the rest. Some activists urged OMB to change Hispanic to Latino. Many argued over the proper placement of people of Hawaiian, Alaskan, and Asian Indian origin. And lots of racial and ethnic groups clamored to have their own separate category, including Arabs, German Americans, and Cape Verdeans. (In earlier times, minority groups had fought against separate racial classification on the census.) Despite these complaints, the categories have changed very little in 35 years. The only major adjustment came in 1997, when OMB permitted respondents to choose more than one race, changed “Black” to “Black or African American,” and moved Pacific Islanders from the Asian category to a new one that also included native Hawaiians.


Source: Slate

Important CENSUS Information

Important Census Information

 Today I attended a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations. It was an important meeting for the multiracial population because recommendations were made for future testing for the 2020 CENSUS.

I was able to have a letter to the committee included in the meeting records and was given the opportunity to give a very brief oral statement to the committee. This was the statement I gave on behalf of the multiracial population:

 Meeting Comments

Susan Graham, Project RACE

 Only one item concerning the multiracial population was addressed in the handouts from the March meeting: multiracial respondents are not always aware they have the option to select more than one race. I will address solutions for this item in my allotted time, and ask you to also read my written letter to this committee in full, which addresses additional issues.

The instructions for race selection on the AQE and 2010 Census were the same:

Mark (x) one or more boxes.

Project RACE works to ensure that multiracial children and our families have forms that reflect appropriate, respectful, and dignified terminology. Concise and very simple, we do not disturb any data or cause any changes in tabulation. We have had extremely positive feedback for our preferred instructions, which are:

Mark one. If you are multiracial, you may select two or more.

In the 1990s, we were advised by OMB to choose one word to describe people who are of more than one race. We agreed on the same word along with other advocates. That word was “Multiracial.” Yes, times change, nomenclature changes, public preferences change, but the preferred term is still Multiracial. It is not “Mark Two or More Races” people, or the “Race in Combination” population.

Some possible changes are being tested in the race category, one of which is to add the Hispanic/Latino option. The instructions could then be:

Mark one. If you are multiracial or multiethnic, you may select two or more.

Isn’t America truly becoming multiracial and multiethnic? Why not use accurate and respectful terminology beginning with the 2020 Census? Project RACE urges you to include our model in further testing.


Races in France?

Can the French Talk About Race?



Quietly, the French Ministry of Higher Education last month signed off on implementing a law that had been passed nearly a year earlier but had been gathering dust within the bureaucracy. Many in the ministry had hoped that it would die a quiet and unnoticed death. Following a model developed in Texas and California, the French government will now offer places at the top universities—France’s grandes écoles, or great schools—to the top ten per cent of students in every lycée in France. This represents a departure for a country that has always proudly maintained an inflexibly meritocratic entrance system. In American terms, the Texas-California model actually represents a moving away from traditional affirmative action, insuring a measure of diversity by offering help based on socioeconomic and not strictly racial grounds. But, for France, what is ambivalently called discrimination positive—affirmative action—is something radical.

France, with its revolutionary, republican spirit of egalité, likes to think of itself as a color-blind society, steadfastly refusing, for example, to measure race, ethnicity, or religion in its censuses. And yet France is, undeniably, a multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multiracial society, and has been at least since the nineteen-fifties, when large waves of immigrants began arriving from its former colonies. It has significant problems of discrimination, and of racial and economic segmentation, but limited tools to measure or correct them. The obvious answer—to many American scholars and to some French ones—is to begin to gather better data.

“No one in France can say how many blacks live in this country,” Louis-Georges Tin, one of the founders of CRAN, the Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires, or the Representative Council of Black Associations, wrote in 2008, when there was a big push to collect racial statistics. “A wide range of unofficial statistics circulate, and the numbers range between one million and six million. How approximate! It’s as if the U.S. Census Bureau said the United States has between a hundred and six hundred million inhabitants.” CRAN commissioned a private research firm to carry out a study, which estimated that three per cent of the French, or roughly 1.8 million people, are black. But this was based on a sample of about thirteen thousand people—a far cry from a national census.

There are divisions, too, about what people hope the numbers will reveal. During periods of economic expansion, France was happy to have inexpensive foreign laborers for its factories and unskilled jobs, housing them in out-of-the way housing projects on the periphery of its major cities. But then the French economy slowed down, unemployment rose, and France woke up to an underclass of people who were physically and culturally isolated from the mainstream. Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front got twenty-five per cent of the French vote in the 2014 European elections, more than any other party. In recent private surveys, seventy per cent of respondents agreed with the statement “There are too many immigrants.”

Presumably, they are not talking about their current Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who was born in Barcelona and did not take French citizenship until he was twenty. Or the current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who was also born in Spain. The anti-immigrant sentiment is directed mainly at those from Africa and Asia, even if they are French citizens and their families have been in France for generations. It is a constant source of annoyance—and sometimes offense—that French people of North African descent are frequently asked, “Where are you from?” when they often have parents born in France.

The demographer Hervé Le Bras recently republished a smart little book called “L’Invention de l’Immigré” showing that the term “immigrant” has radically changed its meaning over time. In the past, France had essentially two categories of people: foreigners and French citizens. If a person born outside France assumed citizenship, he or she passed from the first category to the second. Once there was substantial immigration from Africa, however, people began increasingly to use the term “immigrant” even for native-born French citizens.

Many French people will tell you that these immigrants are different; they point to distinctions of religion, and of cultural and colonial history. It came as a shock that many second- and third-generation French rooted for the soccer clubs of, say, Algeria or Morocco rather than of France. Whether the alienation of many second- and third-generation immigrants is the result of a desire to preserve a distinct culture or of their isolation and discrimination within French society is a matter of intense debate. Various small studies have shown that job applicants with obviously North African or African names are far less likely to get called in for interviews than those with traditionally French names. A study funded by the Open Society Institute showed that black and North African youths were much more likely to be stopped by police in France’s equivalent of stop-and-frisk.

But, again, those researchers could not use official data—which doesn’t exist on the subject. Instead, they spent entire days hanging out at Paris subway stops where French police often conduct these kinds of searches, noting the appearance of the people they saw stopped.

“We can produce general studies that show, for example, it is 2.5 times harder for the descendant of an immigrant to find work than someone else, but we can’t gather data about whether a particular company is engaging in discriminatory hiring or promotion practices,” Patrick Simon, the research director at the Institut National Etudes Démographiques, or INED, said. More than sixteen hundred French companies have signed a Diversity Charter since 2004, vowing to adopt more diverse-hiring practices. But without real ethnic and racial data, there is no reliable way of knowing whether there was any follow-through.

Resistance to collecting this kind of data is quite intense in France, largely due to the weight of national history and traditions. In the late nineteen-nineties, INED conducted a survey that quickly ran into a thicket of thorny problems. Why, critics asked, were Spanish and Italians categorized by nationality while Algerians could be broken into ethnic groups such Kabyle (a major Berber group), Fulani (people present in several West African nations), and Arab? The category of “French extraction” seemed to convey a more-French-than-others status. The notion of using these categories in the 1999 census was abandoned. When the issue came up again, in 2007, a group of French scholars signed a letter of protest:

Far from reflecting diversity, such statistics would oversimplify it. Classification along a single line is bound to be reductive and inappropriate. It would invent groups that do not exist, create divisions where there is proximity, suggest uniformity where there is diversity, and erect boundaries where there is continuity. Ethnic statistics would have the effect of bringing in the notion of ‘race’—whose non-scientific character and danger are well known by all—and to foster intercommunity conflicts.

“First of all, it’s important to understand that France is not exceptional,” Jean-François Amadieu, a professor of sociology of the University of Paris I, told me. “The U.S., Great Britain, and Canada all keep racial statistics, but almost no country in Western Europe does. And you can understand that, with our history of Nazism, Vichy France, the idea of starting to keep racial statistics again awakes very bad memories here.” Moreover, Amadieu argued, there are remedies to discrimination that have no need for racial categories, like the new law regarding the grandes écoles.

“I think it is better that smaller, scholarly surveys deal with these delicate issues of race and ethnicity,” Le Bras, the demographer, told me. “I think, if the national census uses these kinds of categories, it reifies, gives them a concrete reality in the eyes of society which divides people.”

Others remain unconvinced. “Categories like black and white and Arab may be highly questionable, but they are social realities, and so I think it’s my job as a sociologist to study them,” Simon, of INED, said. “These are cleavages that exist in society. What is worse: the statistics of racial division or the racial divisions themselves? There are privileges that come with being white in our society; shouldn’t we be able to measure them? Yes, there may be negative consequences to gathering racial statistics, as there are to not gathering them. So let there be a debate about it.”

For the moment, however, race and ethnicity seem too explosive to discuss frankly. In developing its alternative to affirmative action, France has developed its own euphemistic language: neighborhoods with a high percentage of descendants of immigrants are often referred to as quartiers sensibles, or sensitive neighborhoods, and their school districts are called zones d’éducation prioritaire. Every country has its own tangled history with race. In the U.S., we try to make a virtue out of our hyper racial consciousness, turning it into a willingness to confront and right historical wrongs; the French deal with theirs by using the old republican ideas of “one France, indivisible” to cover over very deep differences. The question is whether they can also heal them.

Source: The New Yorker

U.S. Population

Census Bureau Projects U.S. Population of 317.3 Million on New Year’s Day

As our nation prepares to begin the new year, the U.S. Census Bureau today projected that on Jan. 1, 2014, the United States population will be 317,297,938. This represents an increase of 2,218,622, or 0.7 percent, from New Year’s Day 2013.

In January 2014, one birth is expected to occur every 8 seconds in the United States and one death every 12 seconds.

The projected world population on Jan. 1, 2014, is 7,137,577,750, an increase of 77,630,563, or 1.1 percent from New Year’s Day 2013. In January 2014, 4.3 births and 1.8 deaths are expected worldwide every second. India added 15.6 million people over the one-year period, which led all countries, followed by China, Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

Census Boxes Obsolete

Multiracial America makes census boxes obsolete

As the nation becomes more multiracial, some question whether the survey can accurately reflect the country’s true diversity

  • Image Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • Skin colour The first census was taken in 1790, and by the close of that century would attempt to categorise Americans based on five colour divisions: white, black, red, yellow and brown

In 30 years, America will look very different than it does now. According to analysis of census data, by 2043 white Americans will no longer be a majority. But an equally significant population milestone will arrive in 2020. That is the year in which the next census takes place, and it will be the first one tasked with successfully chronicling the most racially and culturally mixed population in American history.

Governing the nation at the very time the census is grappling with this issue is the country’s first biracial president. Though President Barack Obama has said he identifies as black on the census, there is a growing population of people who may share a similar background but do not wish to identify as he has chosen to. Helping to ensure that these Americans are adequately and accurately counted through his administration’s efforts to perfect a modern census could end up being a significant part of the Obama legacy.

Multiracial Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in the country, yet the United States Census Bureau has struggled with how to effectively capture the changing racial make-up of America. In his new book “What Is Your Race: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans”, Kenneth Prewitt takes the census to task for its many shortcomings when it comes to painting an accurate portrait of America’s racial and cultural landscape. Prewitt, though, is not just any run-of-the-mill critic. He is a former director of the US Census Bureau, where he served from 1998 to 2001.

Prewitt says that America is unique in its racial categorisation and its reasons for categorising. “We decided why we wanted racial statistics and the purpose of them, and then designed statistics to accomplish those purposes.”

So, for instance, when a compromise was needed to appease Southerners to get the House of Representatives up and running in the late 18th century, black slaves were counted as three fifths of a person. Then by the mid-20th century, as the civil rights movement became enshrined in legislative policies such as affirmative action, collecting accurate racial data became a key tool in the quest for social justice.

There is a passionate debate raging over whether a wealthy, first-generation African immigrant is the intended beneficiary of American affirmative-action programmes. This kind of debate is the crux of Prewitt’s argument.

In 1790, the first census was taken, and by the close of that century would attempt to categorise Americans based on five colour divisions: white, black, red, yellow and brown. Those categories form the foundation for what are still the primary census racial classifications of white, black/African-American, American Indian and Asian, with categories such as Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian being relatively recent additions.

The 2000 Census would mark the first time individuals were permitted to check more than one racial classification. (Fascinatingly, according to Prewitt’s book, conservative Republican Newt Gingrich pushed the issue, inspired by the parent of a biracial child in his district.) But Prewitt makes a compelling case that it is still falling short.

“Nobody else uses these five categories as their management system for race and ethnicity.” When asked if that is because other places have less diversity or are simply better at categorisation, he replied, “I think it’s because they are not as deeply racist as we are. I’m serious. This racial categorisation and conversation got a hold of us back in the slavery days, and we have repeated it and repeated it.”

He went on to explain that today there are essentially three reasons racial statistics are collected. “One is the continuing legacy of discrimination,” which can be addressed through a “racial-justice agenda” (such as affirmative action), he said. “We are not going to be a colour-blind society,” so statistics are necessary to prove who is and who is not discriminating.

The second reason is the “melting-pot challenge”, the ability to track how many immigrants we have and how they are adjusting to American life, and third, identity politics. A lot of people of colour want to be able to strongly identify with their communities, which is tough to do on a national level without accurate data identifying where these communities are and who comprises them.

According to Prewitt, at the moment the census “is moderately good at the racial-justice agenda, is woefully inadequate on the immigration-assimilation issue and has kind of mixed up the whole identity stuff. All kinds of subgroups don’t find themselves.”

But not only do subgroups not find themselves, as Prewitt’s book argues, today determining what box someone fits into tells you very little about their experience as Americans.

Asked if he considers the race questions now on the census inherently racist, he replied, “Yes. I think they really are. The very fact that we use them this way.”

He then attempted to illustrate his point via a controversial anecdote. “If you walk some of the city streets at night in New York, you worry if you see four or five black teenagers with hoods on. Now, is that stereotyping? I don’t think that’s stereotyping if you’re in a high-crime neighbourhood. But that [worry] is not because they’re black — I don’t think. It’s because they live a certain kind of impoverished [life], lack of education, lack of access, lack of mobility, and I want to attack that problem.”

Prewitt’s book explores this very issue by pondering whether asking questions about education and health status would tell us more about a population than traits such as skin colour lumped under one racial category. From Prewitt’s vantage point, a census that only tells you generally about those teens’ skin colour won’t really help in attacking the core problems. If one of the functions of census data is to use population information to effectively craft policy to address issues affecting specific communities, then it is failing.

To its credit, the Census Bureau has already begun exploring ways to improve its present form. In 2010, there were experimental questions included on the document that allowed people to elaborate on their ethnic origin. For instance, instead of simply identifying as “Asian” there was the option of selecting “Japanese”, “Korean” and other specific subgroups.

In 2012, former Census Bureau director Robert Groves said of the experimental questions, “As new immigrant groups came to this country decade after decade, how we measure ethnicity changed to reflect the changing composition of the country. Since that change is never-ending, and America gets more and more diverse, how we understand and tabulate the information has to be continually open to change. It’s critical that race and ethnicity reflect how people identify themselves.”

To Groves’s point, it was not until this year that the census decided to drop the word “Negro”, which has not been widely used in American society for decades.

In a statement regarding Prewitt’s general criticism that the present census is falling short, Nicholas Jones, chief of the US Census Bureau’s Racial Statistics Branch in the Population Division, said, “The US Census Bureau remains committed to improving the accuracy and reliability of all census data by expanding our understanding of how people identify themselves and by eliciting detailed responses on race and ethnicity.

“For decades, the Census Bureau has provided research data on how Americans identify their race and ethnicity, and research from its 2010 Census Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE) is informing the decision-making on this issue. As the Census Bureau prepares for the 2020 Census, we will explore how the successful strategies from the 2010 AQE may be further tested to provide accurate and relevant data about our changing and diversifying nation.”

When asked how he would like to see the census changed, Prewitt mentioned a colleague’s suggestion to ask, “Are you discriminated against, and if so, on what basis?” but he quickly added, “That’s not going to happen.” He then offered, “I just wish the question were ‘What population group do you belong to?’ instead of ‘What race do you belong to?’ Then I’d list African-American, Hispanic, European, American Indian. I’d just list them, and you can be more than one, two or three of those things. Media will still call it race. I just don’t want the government to be in the game of acting as if these race categories are real.”

He said he is not sure how much of an immediate impact such a language change would make, but that it would “turn the temperature down a little bit”, in how we discuss race and racial identity in a country with a troubled history of racism.

He also explained that ultimately the culture will force the long-term change that people such as him would like to see. In 30 years or so a population of multiracial, multi-ethnic Americans will completely alter how we talk about and think about race, meaning the census will have no choice but to shift.

–Washington Post