kenneth PruittThe Census Race Classification: Is it Doing its Job? (Kenneth Prewitt)


1. Aligning census ethnoracial categories with America's changing demography is a never-ending task and becomes more difficult when identity claims are rationales for altering categories. We examine four current problems: (1) the Census Bureau projects a population more nonwhite than white by midcentury-- social demographers document trends pointing to a different racial future; (2) the census inadequately measures second- and third-generation Americans, limiting the nation's understanding of why some immigrant groups are “racialized” while others are “whitened”; (3) on health, education, and employment, there is more intra-race than between-race variability, which is better measured for Asians and Hispanics than it is for whites and BLACKs; and (4) consistency in racial self-identification is stronger for whites, BLACKs, and Asians than for Hispanics, Native Americans, and biracial groups, lowering the reliability of race data. These measurement problems weaken policy choices relevant to economic growth, social justice, immigrant assimilation, government reforms, and an enlightened public.

2. Keywords: majority-minority; assimilation; intrarace variability; identity rationales; white nationalism; statistical races


3. America'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.

4. These five races--though not the rank-order--structure America's racial numbers today. 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.

5. 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. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. Alba adds that partly BLACK persons are an exception, either remaining multi-race or identifying as BLACK only. There is a prominent example, underscoring that inviting identity expression in census practice has consequences for the making and unmaking of groups.

10. The Obama rule
a. When President Obama returned his census form in 2010, the New York Times reported:
b. is official: Barack Obama is the nation's first BLACK president.
c. A White House spokesman confirmed that Mr. Obama, the son of a BLACK father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, checked AFRICAN American on the 2010 census questionnaire. (Roberts and Baker 2010)
d. The phrase, “It is official,” is hyperbole. Ticking a census box does not make anything about an individual “official”--it is just a tick on a form that is then aggregated with millions of other ticks to give an estimate, in this case, of the size of the AFRICAN American population group. Other ticks, biracial BLACK and white ticks, for instance, in that same census give us an estimate of the size of a mixed-race population group--now, we see in Obama's census decision, one person fewer than it might have been (and the BLACK race one person more).
e. The Census Bureau did not say of Obama “we know this person to have a white mother and AFRICAN father, making him (and his daughters) biracial and will so be recorded statistically.” No such thing happened or was even contemplated. This was not timidity because Obama was president. His census self-identification stands because, in the census, you are in the category you choose, or in the case of children, is chosen for you. If you are in some other category a decade later, and millions are, you have changed your mind. Racial identity in the census is not whether a taxi stops for you, or what is on your birth certificate, or what your grandparents thought they were. It is a tick in a box. Call that the Obama rule, and recognize that statistical races are every bit as real as socially constructed or identity races. And in the arena of public policy, only statistical races are real, and we cannot be surprised if they then are forcefully deployed in political battles over those policies.
f. If Obama was signaling that he feels closer to his AFRICAN than to his European heritage, he is joined by many AFRICAN AMERICANS. Alba presents relevant data, as he does for the fact that other mixtures, especially white-Asians and white-Hispanics, tend to relate more easily to their European than their minority heritage. We see that similar patterns occur when mixed-race parents, for various reasons, describe their children as monoracial.

11. it matters if America measures races, and then, of course, how the government decides what those races are. It matters because law and policy are not about an abstraction called race but are about races as they are made intelligible and acquire their numerical size in our statistical system. When we politically ask why BLACK men are jailed at extraordinarily high rates, whether undocumented Mexican laborers are taking jobs away from working-class whites, or whether Asians have become the model minority in America, we start from a count of jailed BLACKs, the comparative employment patterns of Mexicans and whites, and Asian educational achievements. When our political questions are shaped by how many of which races are doing what, and when policies addressing those conditions follow, we should worry about whether the “how many” and the “which races” tell us what we need to know about what is going on in our polity, economy, and society.

12. Yet the third generation--grandchildren of the post-1965 immigrants--“will write the next chapter in the contemporary American immigrant assimilation story,” writes Jimenez. Their “social, political, and economic fortunes will reveal the extent and kind of assimilation among the DESCENDANTs of today's largely non-European immigrants.”.

13. Though variability within America's broad race categories is a long-standing research interest, its relevance to public understanding and to policy was muted in the melting pot decades, when European nationality groups gradually assimilated, adding numeric strength to the white population and reinforcing the white/Black color line.

14. Porter and Snipp, for example, note that only a few Asian countries--China, Japan, South Korea--supply the high percentage of technology workers immigrating with H1(B) visas, whose language skills, education levels, and career opportunities significantly differ from Vietnamese or Laotian immigrants. Today's immigrants from Ghana or Ethiopia differ from, and in some cases try to avoid contact with, AFRICAN AMERICANS whose ancestors arrived as slaves. Telles's complaint, cited above, that the Census Bureau is “out of step with popularly held notions of race and ethnicity,” is developed in his analysis of Latinos, where he emphasizes a racial hierarchy based on “phenotypic and color gradients.” This hierarchy leads some to treat their “Blackness as an identity to be avoided.”

15. A takeaway lesson from Section III. Policy tied to the primary race categories, whether five or seven, makes little difference, seriously misses what a more granular measurement system provides, one making greater use of national origin categories and immigration status. Particularly problematic is the absence of AFRICAN American and white subcategories in the current census classification scheme. This results, for example, in forcing recent immigrants from Ethiopia, Ghana, and Nigeria into the all-inclusive BLACK category, despite significant educational, employment, or family structure differences from the AFRICAN AMERICANS whose ancestors most certainly did not voluntarily migrate to America (Prewitt 2013, 165-66). It is equally important to unpack white nationalism. When and how does it vary by national origin, religion, social class, or geography, and with what consequences?

16. Or, as Bratter notes, at any given time, those “who choose to mark more than one box are a nonrandom subset of those who could do so” (italics added). Those “who could do so” constitute a denominator that is not captured in the census. Roth makes a similar observation when she calls for “determining the denominator,” that is, all the people who could identify in the multiracial group. However useful this might be for the research community, there is no realistic way the Census Bureau could determine that hypothetical denominator. Should the bureau have coded Obama as BLACK and white so he would be in the correct denominator? If so, what of the unknown number of the multiracial who reported only one race in the 2010 census, but neglected to tell the New York Times they had done so.

17. How mixed-race couples identify their children adds a further level of complexity and confusion. Lichter and Qian find that a sizable share “of America's children from mixed-race marriages are identified by their parents as monoracial.” More than 25 percent of the BLACK-white and Asian-white couples do so. And there is negotiation by parents in deciding which race to favor, with various factors having an influence: the educated parent prevails or the composition of the neighborhood serves as a reference point. Overall, there is a drift in favor of whiteness, underscoring Alba's doubts about the majority-minority future.

18. Compounding this problem is the tendency for people to make strategic choices. Deaux writes that people present different racial identities as their social settings shift. The extent to which this occurs varies from one racial group to another. We are beginning to understand that race groups differ in the strength of their respective classification norms. Whites, BLACKs, and Asians have comparatively stronger, more stable norms. Hispanics and Native Americans have weaker norms and, thus, are more likely to shift depending on context. The multiracial identifiers are least likely to give consistent responses across time or settings.\

19. 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.

20. 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).

21. 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


 I: The Significance of Ethno-Racial Mixing