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excerpted from: Kenneth Prewitt, The Census Race Classification: Is it Doing its Job?, 677 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 8 (May, 2018) (8 Footnotes Omitted) (Full Document)


Kenneth PruittAmerica's racial classification can be traced to 1735, when Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, briefly shifted his attention from flora and fauna--he was a botanist--and fearlessly divided the human species into four subspecies: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, Europeaeus. A few decades later, the classification was slightly modified by a German doctor, Johan Blumenbach, in his influential On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. He divided the Asians into the Mongolian and Malaysian; he also took care to rank-order the races, Europeans being superior as the most civilized, and Africans inferior and uncivilized.

These five races--though not the rank-order--structure America's racial numbers today. Few are happy with this straitjacket, and for a half century the U.S. Census Bureau has been adding fixes big and small to better align eighteenth-century race science to changing social and demographic realities and public uses. It added an ethnic category--Hispanic--though that tripped over the other category, which, nonsensically, then became the fastest growing race in the country. It invited Native American Indians to write in their tribal affiliation, which mixed up a civil status (membership in a federally recognized tribe) with culture (community belonging). It made extensive use of national origin subcategories for two races--Asians and Pacific Islanders--but neither whites nor blacks have subcategories. The latter two races are uniquely denoted by color, which, of course, has never been measured by the census. I doubt that it ever will be.

The "fix the race question" pace picked up as we entered the twenty-first century. One change was, on the face of it, more tinkering than transforming. It was in the 2000 census that Blumenbach's Mongolian and Malaysian subspecies were finally counted as separate races in the American census. The story merits retelling. In the mid-1990s, Hawaii's Senator Daniel K. Akaka successfully argued that the Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) should be a race separate from the Asian category. He cited statistics demonstrating that the NHPI were disadvantaged compared to the larger Asian population; he wanted these disadvantages separately tabulated and government programs targeted accordingly. In this Akaka was emphasizing the social justice reasoning so central to the civil rights era a half-century earlier. Akaka, however, was not finished. In congressional testimony, he also argued that the current classification "denies us our identity as indigenous peoples" (U.S. House 1998, 263, italics added). Self-esteem rationales were not entirely new to the census (Schor 2005), but never had they led to such a radical change--adding to the census a new primary race category. Akaka's bold identity claim kept intact the eighteenth-century race science category scheme, but pushed aside its rationale. Races are not biologically meaningful; they are what groups of people claim--or reject as the case might be--as their rightful identity.

It was a short step to an even more radical assertion. The first census of the new millennium made clear that treating us as if we all belonged to pure mono-races was badly mistaken. Racial mixture occurs, in numbers large enough to merit counting. This was officially announced in an understated option on the 2000 census form: respondents could, if they wished, "mark one or more" of the five primary races. This option is traced to the 1968 Supreme Court ruling that interracial marriage was constitutionally protected, which of course led to biracial children. Again, this was hardly new, but a long-standing demographic reality the census would finally take into account. In 2000, mark-one-or-more entered census history with these children in mind. It had a bumpy beginning.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) insisted that because race statistics existed for "the enforcement of civil rights laws," the move to multiracial census categories would reduce the size of discrete minority races, "diluting benefits to which they are entitled as a protected class under civil rights laws and under the Constitution itself" (Williams 2006, 308). In a show of racial solidarity, Asian and Hispanic advocacy groups agreed that the census categories were not called on "to provide vehicles for self-identification" (Williams 2006, 308).

But self-identification and self-esteem were exactly what Senator Akaka argued for, and what multiracial advocates sought. The Association of Multiethnic Americans demanded "choice in the matter of who we are, just like any other community. We are not saying that we are a solution to civil rights laws or civil rights injustices of the past." It is ironic that "our people are being asked to correct by virtue of how we define ourselves all of the past injustices [toward] other groups of people" (U.S. House 1998, 383).

This rationale notwithstanding, the Census Bureau is not in the self-esteem business. It does not produce identity races; it produces statistical races. The Bureau's website emphasizes that statistical races are used "to assess fairness in employment practices, meet legislative redistricting requirements by knowing the racial make-up of the voting age population, learn who may not be receiving medical services, determine disparities in health and environmental risks" and other similar purposes, as required by ten key executive agencies.

Nowhere on the Bureau's website, or those of the ten executive agencies, will you find attention to self-esteem, recognition, or identity expression. Instead, you will find programmatic reasons for statistical races, linked to concerns about disparities and discrimination, but also to city planning, transportation policy, and related government tasks and commercial uses--all drawing on census race and ethnic statistics. Stated differently, Akaka started with disparities and tagged on identity. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) ran statistics on the former, concluding that the evidence justified NHPI as a separate race. Had Akaka offered only a self-esteem rationale, the OMB and Census Bureau would not have known how to measure it. NHPI would not today be a separate race.

But that was two decades ago. Do we not now have a broader array of identity claims and a richer understanding of, especially, the multiracial population? Yes, and much that is relevant is on display in this volume, starting with the fact that a multiracial emphasis turns out to have unexpected political consequences.

To understand those consequences, I briefly trace familiar history, dating to America's founding fathers. The War of Independence they led was justified as a war against tyranny and a proclamation of liberty and equality. This posed a tricky question: How could a new nation reject tyranny but simultaneously impose it on the indigenous Native Americans in forceful removal from their homelands and, even more comprehensively, on the African slave? The answer-- impose a citizenship test in the new republic, conveniently tethered to who was civilized and who was not. The Europeans wrote the rules, declaring themselves civilized and fit for citizenship, but of course not the uncivilized Indian and African. A white superiority narrative was born (Parkinson 2017). It haunts our history, very often finding in the census a convenient tool: a Jim Crow apartheid regime, a whites-only melting pot, second-class citizenship for Asian and Hispanic labor, continuing in current times in gerrymandering and voter suppression, and, today, unexpectedly, in the revival of white nationalism that shows traces of the eighteenth-century fixation on white superiority.

The civil rights era took on the white superiority narrative when the census, previously an aid to exclusion, shifted 180 degrees to serve as a tool of racial inclusion. Its most telling early achievement was statistical proportionality--groups matter proportionate to their share of the total population. This idea was anticipated by the constitutionally protected decadal census reapportionment process, but in 1787 none could have imagined its mid-twentieth-century application.

Statistical proportionality began its official life in the Kerner Commission Report (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders 1968), a response to the mid-1960s epidemic of urban race riots. The commission introduced an idea new to public discourse--unintentional discrimination, the kind that flows not from a racially prejudiced employer or realtor but from how the labor and housings markets are structured. Soon the phrase institutional racism caught on, and from that it was a short step to preferential hiring. Institutional discrimination required institutional solutions (Knowles and Prewitt 1969). Statistical proportionality slipped into government policy and public usage in the late 1960s, later named affirmative action or, today, the widely established practice of diversity hiring. The white superiority narrative faded from public usage, its rejection further hastened by a demographic transformation as America again opened its door to immigration, this time overwhelmingly from non-European regions. This gave the nation a new multicultural narrative.

The census, still anchored to an eighteenth-century classification and heavily constrained by path dependency, struggled to match the new demography and discourse. Mark-one-or-more was an awkward response to the hundreds of national origins, ethnic, and language groups confused about what census box to tick. Mark-one-or-more applied to only the five primary races. The part white and part Asian could find a census home, but not the part white and part Hispanic. But change was still in the air. A few years after the partial fix represented by mark-one-or-more in 2000, the Census Bureau went at it again. It mounted a research project on racial categories unprecedented in its ambition and scale--comparing seventeen different ways to count races and ethnicity, with two control panels; adding in fifteen experimental treatments and focus groups; as well as assembling expert panels and presenting in dozens of professional settings.

The research led to various mode, wording, and framing improvements and then, much more consequentially, to two ambitious category recommendations: (1) the 2020 census should introduce a race category that the botanist and the doctor had missed--Middle-Eastern North African (MENA); and (2) it should merge what had been a separate Hispanic question into a single ethnoracial classification with the primary races. Mark-one-or-more stays in place, though now applied to seven primary categories (if MENA is accepted). The census form also offers space to write in specific ancestry, ethnicity, tribe, or national origin identities for each of the basic categories. As of this writing, these recommendations are before the statistical policy office of the OMB, the controlling executive agency.

Are the proposed 2020 changes an improvement? Yes, is the general answer in this volume. Does this mean that the country will finally have a coherent set of categories? Not exactly. Problems persist and are pointed out in the articles that follow. The reader will find many sentences with some variant of "the census should ...." with specific recommendations as well as sweeping complaints. Telles, for example, says that the Census Bureau is "out of step with popularly held notions of race and ethnicity." If the Census Bureau accepted all the recommendations found in this volume, would it then be in-step, would we have a coherent set of categories? Not likely. As Lopez (2005) observes, incoherent census categories are inevitable because they "arise out of (fundamentally irrational) social practices" (p. 50).

Repeated effort to fix the census classification system is welcome, but it will never completely fix what is inescapably an incoherent classification scheme. There is a racial reality independent of the reality captured in the census; and as academic research points out, that reality is more complex, nuanced, changeable than what census statistics capture. This is not for lack of intelligence, imagination, or effort in the Census Bureau--all present in abundance. It is because the Bureau is not a free agent. Its purpose is decided elsewhere, starting with the first Article of the U.S. Constitution. Its past, present, and future cannot escape the "fundamentally irrational" task imposed in law and practice--count America's races.

Academic research is not so constrained. Consider a simple example. Social scientists find implicit bias and racial stereotyping, and find that phenotypic attributes are in play. Skin color matters. Perhaps it would be useful if the American census measured color (Brazil does). This will not happen. Academic research, with its experiments, in-depth interviews, and tailored surveys, will always probe corners not reachable by the census.

This volume, under four headings, reviews research that draws primarily on census data but also brings other data into the picture. The back and forth between census measures and academic unpacking, aided by other measures, inevitably reveals measurement flaws, some that are, at least in principle (first two), fixable; others less so (second two).

I. The majority-minority future now being much discussed, with significant political consequences, is highly likely to be more distant than has been asserted. Under reasonable assumptions, it may be postponed indefinitely as assimilation "whitens" some nationality groups. It did so for the once alien Irish, Italian, and Polish "races" and is now under way, if very selectively, among Asians (especially the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean-Americans), Hispanics (especially from the Caribbean Islands), Native Americans (especially those living in cities rather than on reservations), well-educated African immigrants who started arriving in the 1970s, and multiracials.

II. The inadequately measured generational differences, especially where place-of-birth gets tangled up with the dynamics of racializing immigrants, that is, where color-line and nativity-line overlap. This is a nontrivial matter; in 2016, nearly one in five Americans were immigrants (43.7 million) or first generation (16.6 million).

III. The difficulty of assessing and responding to disparities and inequalities because within-group variability (detected by comparing the national origin groups that belong to one or another primary race group) is greater in magnitude than that between the primary race groups, which are generally used in policy design and evaluation.

IV. The low reliability of ethnoracial statistics, across settings and over time, when compared to other population characteristics measured by the census, playing havoc with trend lines.

. . .

Is the census racial classification doing its job? Obviously "yes" is the answer but, of course, with the always present qualifier: "there is room for improvement." The Census Bureau launched its major 2010 research, on the promise that the results of that research would help to improve the accuracy and reliability of census statistics.

With improvement in mind, I published a book with the subtitle The Census and our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Prewitt 2013). The Princeton University Press editor asked why not "failed" instead of "flawed." Because, I replied, the census only fails if its numbers go unused, clearly not the case for any census-produced counts, least of all for its race and ethnicity numbers. What, then, to do about its flaws? The core of my argument is incremental change--take one step in 2020, another step a generation or so later, and yet another later in the century.

When we reach the endpoint, the census will be making less use of the eighteenth-century primary races, with the possible exception that the African American and Native American populations will still be better served by retaining their identity as such. They uniquely experienced centuries of punitive and cumulative disadvantage; it does not get fixed in decades, even when there is a will to do so.

The Hispanics, Asians, Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders, and, if a separate race, the Middle-Eastern North Africans, will, I suggest, benefit from measurement more attuned to their variability and diversity based on national origin and linguistic differences. They also, more recently arrived, will assimilate differently from one national origin to another, a process that will occur across the rest of the century (maybe beyond, depending on immigration rates in the decades ahead).

My guides in reaching this conclusion are Michael Omi and Howard Winant, who ask whether America is best understood through a more cultural or more racial lens (Omi and Winant 1994). Critics of the cultural focus claim that it ignores the persistent color line that was and remains racist in its construction, including the American instinct to racialize any newly arrived nonwhite immigrant groups. The counterargument is that the racial lens hides too much about the highly varied way in which different immigrant groups have made a place for themselves in American society.

Census statistics are not a neutral bystander. Insofar as they are structured as Blumbachian primary races, they favor the more racial interpretation and, in their lack of detail about national origin and the importance of generational differences, they miss much of importance to a cultural interpretation. I want to loosen the grip of the primary race classification.

David Hollinger has made clear that this loosening need not come at the expense of robust racial measurement. The design can be sufficiently flexible that the analyst, advocate, and policy-maker can have it both ways (Hollinger 2005). The proposal now under review in the OMB is a major step in this direction. It allows data to be disaggregated by national origin/tribal affiliation. It also allows the data to be reaggregated into the primary races, be they five or seven. It also allows special purpose groups to be constituted for academic or policy purposes. For example, all national origin/tribal groups with limited education could be assembled--white Appalachians, inner-city African Americans, Hispanic migrant workers, Native American Indians on impoverished reservations, selected Asian nationalities. Today's race borders need to be porous. This is happening in the lived experience of millions of Americans; it needs to happen in the statistics that try to capture the lived experience. The articles that follow make a compelling case for greater granularity and flexibility in federal statistics, led by the Census Bureau.