Forum: Census may not aid race issues

Census may not aid race issues
Counting multiracial people proves more complex than thought

By David R. Harris

The 2000 census marked a fundamental change in how we measure race in the United States, allowing people for the first time to declare themselves multi racial.

That’s getting a lot of buzz, and will get even more in coming weeks as academics, politicians, the press and public debate the size and implications of the multi racial population.

But a check in a box doesn’t get to the ambiguity of race designations, and the result will be that the first census count of the multiracial population is far from definitive.

My reasons for believing this are both personal and professional. Consider the following reactions to my 3-year-old daughter.

When she and my wife were at a hospital in New Mexico, a white nurse asked if she spoke Spanish. While they waited in line at a grocery store in Ann Arbor, an African-American bagger leaned over to my daughter and said, “I know you’ve got soul.” As they made their way through O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, a white airline worker told my wife our daughter “has a great tan.”

The nurse in New Mexico saw a white woman with a bronze-skinned child and concluded that, like many people in the Southwest, our daughter was part Latino. In the predominantly black-and-white context of Michigan, the grocery store bagger interpreted these same cues as indicative of black heritage.
By contrast, the white airline worker naturally assumed that if my wife is white, and my daughter brown, it must be because of the sun.

Now consider the results from a national survey of adolescents. When more than 10,000 middle and high school students were asked to report their race on separate school and home surveys, about 12 percent failed to provide consistent responses.

Seven percent reported being multiracial on only one of the surveys, and nearly 3 percent of the youth switched between single-race groups. Multiracial reports were almost twice as likely on the school survey, which was self-administered, as on the home survey, which was administered by an interviewer.
These examples illustrate that rather than being a fixed characteristic, one’s race is constantly being negotiated. Race depends not just on ancestry — my wife identifies as white and I as black — but also on the verbal, physical and cultural cues we project to others, their interpretation of those cues and the setting in which this exchange occurs.

These experiences were on my mind as I sat down to answer the race question on the 2000 Census. The question asked, “What is this person’s race?” It then directed me to “mark one or more races to indicate what this person considers himself/herself to be.” I reflexively selected “white” for my wife and “black” for myself, but answering the race question for our two daughters was more complicated.

Given that both girls were under 3, I could not realistically use “what this person considers himself/herself to be” as a guide. Instead, I thought about the impetus for asking about race on the census, much of which comes from the need to enforce civil rights legislation.

This suggested that what the federal government most wanted to know was what race others consider our daughters to be. Of course, that raised the question of which “other” — the nurse in New Mexico, the grocery store bagger in Ann Arbor or the airline worker in Chicago? In the end, I marked “white” and “black” for each girl, falling back on antiquated notions of biological race to provide a false sense of clarity to the race question.

Although most people who answered the 2000 Census probably did not give the race question much thought, its new wording certainly caused some people to contemplate which response they should give for the racially mixed members of their household. Unfortunately, we will never know how many of these people used my strategy of providing an ancestral inventory, how many selected a single race or what criteria they used to make this decision.

So, as the Census Bureau begins releasing its official count of multiracial Americans, we should all be a little skeptical about the numbers. If the 2000 race question had specifically asked for all of the racial groups known to be in a person’s background, the count of multiracials would be much larger. Alternatively, if it had asked for the race or races that others most often consider this person to be, then the count of multiracials would almost certainly be much smaller.

This is not to say the limited space available on the census could have been used to capture all of the complexities of race. Rather, my point is that because race can and, for people like my daughters, does vary across observers and contexts, we must employ more sophisticated ways of measuring race if we hope to understand the multiracial population.
More complex approaches will likely show that the size and characteristics of the multiracial population vary significantly from Census 2000 estimates. We should all keep this in mind before using the census count of multiracials to support statements about the social, political and legal consequences of race in contemporary American society.

David R. Harris is a sociologist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. (Washington Post)

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2002-04-24 03:31:00

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