Clarence Page: Update census questions

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A notable example of how Americans fall through the cracks in Census Bureau data gathering caught my attention while Web surfing. It appeared on the black-oriented website under this eye-catching headline: “I found one drop; Can I be black now?”

The “one drop” is a reference to the old racial rule that one drop of black blood in your veins makes you black. As a full-fledged black American, I wondered who was so eager to join the club?

The answer turned out to be a white woman who had written to The Root’s “Race Manners” advice column. She had uncovered an African-American ancestor who long ago had passed for white. Now faced with census forms, among other documents that ask us Americans for our race, she was wondering which box to check.

“Do I check both, and come across as a liar to those who don’t know my history?” she asked. “Or do I check just white, and feel like a self-loathing racist?”

I sympathize with the suddenly mixed-race woman’s confusion. In changing times, government forms are often the last to catch up.

It has only been since 2000, for example, that mixed-race people are allowed to check more than one racial box. And that’s just one slice of America’s changing demographics that on which census forms are falling behind.

On question number 9 in the 2010 form, for example, there are check boxes for “White,” ‘‘Black, African American or Negro,” ‘‘American Indian or Alaska Native,” as well as 11 other choices that actually are ethnic nationalities from Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Hispanics are mentioned in a separate question, clearly as an ethnic group, apparently in response to confusion in 2000 that the Census Bureau says resulted in about 43 percent of Hispanics failing to specify a race. Some even wrote in “I am Hispanic.”

Even so, the new form left out mention of the entire Middle East, among other regions, leaving their ethnic groups to check “white” or fill in the catch-all box for “Some other race.”

More extensive questions of ethnicity and ancestry have been asked since 2000 by another set of longer forms, the American Community Survey. Unlike the 10-year census, the longer ACS is conducted among a sample of 250,000 people every month. That’s a good model, some experts, say for how the 10-year census could give a more complete and realistic picture of America’s changing demographic landscape.

“We shouldn’t be governing in the 21st century by a race classification given us by a German doctor in 1776,” former census Director Kenneth Prewitt told me in an e-mail exchange.

He was referring to the German medical scientist Johann Blumenbach, whose 1776 book, On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, established the familiar but woefully inadequate five-race model we know so well today: “Caucasian, Mongolian (Asian), Malay (Pacific Islanders), American Indian and Negro.”

That was too simplistic then, let along now.

In a book to be released in June, titled What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans, Prewitt, now a public affairs professor at Columbia University, calls for an overhaul of census race questions for a new era in our increasingly diverse nation.

It’s not enough just to count noses, he argues. We know, for example, that income gaps have been growing since 1960 between Americans of all races who have schooling beyond a high school diploma and those who don’t. Yet our focus on racial differences too often gets in the way of what we should be learning about class barriers.

Prewitt lays out a bold plan for phasing out the current questions about race while phasing in a new set aimed at measuring differences in income, education and upward mobility and social assimilation — key questions in determining how well our fabled American “melting pot” is still working.

Whether Prewitt’s scheme is widely embraced or not, it’s worth talking about.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.


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