- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

The Census Bureau soon will report population figures that paint in unprecedented and exquisite detail a racial profile of the nation. Some say it will be a messy picture.

The numbers that are expected by the second week of March are those provided to the states for use in "redistricting" the crucial process of redrawing congressional districts and precinct boundaries across the nation.

The "redistricting file," as it's called, will provide the number of residents in each state, county, census "tract" and city block or its equivalent. It will give the racial and ethnic makeup of each geographic unit and also the breakdown of those 18 and older.

But importantly, instead of reporting population tallies merely for whites, blacks, Asians, American Indians, Eskimos or Aleuts the six familiar racial groupings it will, for the first time, report 63 different categories.

And because each racial category is again divided by a census question asking respondents if they are Hispanic, the total of possible mixed-race combinations doubles to 126.

The government has made the multiplication of racial-ethnic groupings mandatory for all federal agencies that collect and report demographic and economic data.

The mixed-race data result from a basic change in the census conducted last spring. The census questionnaires invited participants to choose membership in more than one race, if appropriate.

Consequently, it's possible for someone to characterize himself as a white, black, Asian and American Indian.

While this choice cheers some, it has generated confusion and potential problems for many census data users, state legislators among them. The legislators will try to carve out new voting districts that have the desired racial concentration or the preferred racial integration that best serves their parties. To the extent that the mixed-race results cloud the racial picture, they tell those data users more than they want to know.

But how much difference the added information actually will make depends largely on how many persons opted last spring to identify themselves as having "mixed-race" backgrounds.

As Suzanne Bianchi, University of Maryland sociology professor and past president of the Population Association of America, points out, the change can be a good thing because it might finally reveal just how diverse America is.

"You could say that in 1990 we were artificially constraining the population, and that forcing people to choose one race made it look more unidimensional than it really is," she explains.

The constraint on people was of supreme concern to those who lobbied passionately in the late 1990s for the ability to choose more than one race. In 1997, Ramona E. Douglass testified for the Association of Multiethnic Americans before the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight. She argued people "are no longer willing to remain proverbial square pegs shoved into the consistently round holes of America's racial classification system."

For years, parents in racially mixed marriages had rebelled at having to declare on school forms that their children were members of a single race, thereby slighting one or the other parent.

"In a way, allowing people to identify themselves as mixed race signals that less significance is given to race. If there were just two races and everyone was of one of two categories, that would be an important distinction," says University of Maryland philosophy professor Judith Lichtenberg, a specialist in public policy.

Miss Lichtenberg and others also note that mixed-race reporting well may indicate that interracial marriage is much more prevalent than many thought.

Beyond that, Miss Bianchi says that for demographers and many other census data users, the principal problem is statistical.

"It is going to complicate the reporting of change over time of showing how much a certain race has grown in number." She contends and census officials confirm there is no way to compare the racial-ethnic totals obtained in 1990 and before with those collected in 2000.

The altered data also will confound the courts, enforcement agencies and government grant makers. Knowing which racial and ethnic groups have the most members is vital to many of their calculations.

Ken Hodges, a demographer for Claritas, a San Diego-based marketing firm that reportedly is the biggest commercial user of census data, says: "Race is a census variable that interests many of our clients. Some companies marketing to neighborhoods that have different racial or ethnic mixes have found that certain products are more in demand by one race or group than another."

Retailers, he notes, want to know where their buyers are. "Other companies real estate firms, banks and others want to be able to show they are serving areas with different racial composition to prove compliance with legal requirements and to show they are not redlining, for instance."

But Mr. Hodges and other demographers, educators, minority-group advocates, and marketers wonder what to make of a community composed of widely disparate racial and ethnic mixes. They point out that no one has had to deal with the question in the same way before. They say they're not clear how to proceed.

All agree that if relatively few people say they are mixed-race, the problem will be small. In some instances, the number may be dismissed.

Yet, even if small numbers of census respondents have declared themselves racially mixed, they still will subtract from the total number of people in the racial group with which they formerly identified. They will have "diluted" the group's clout in civil rights matters, is the way some express it.

Karen Narasaki, who heads the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, says her group sees it that way. Officials of the National Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality say the same.

William Spriggs, director of the league, calls the census change "a big step backward." The purpose of the race question, he says, "was to obtain political-economic information so we could see and understand the extent to which discrimination still affects society. Now they've transformed it into a biological question."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide