The U.S. Census Bureau announced that it wants to make a number of changes in how it counts membership in a race. The change is based on an experiment the bureau conducted during the last census in which nearly 500,000 households were given forms with the race and ethnicity questions worded differently from the traditional categories. The results showed that many people who filled out the traditional form did not feel they fit within the five government-defined categories of race: white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native. If Congress approves, the bureau says it plans to stop using the word "Negro" as part of a question asking if a person was "black, African-American or Negro." There are a number of other changes planned for counting Hispanics and Arab-Americans.

These changes may seem like improvements. They are not. The bureau and Congress ought to be considering a more radical overhaul of the census — dropping questions about race entirely. There are a lot of reasons why.

First, the concept of "race" makes no biological sense. None. The classifications Americans use to divide people into groups and categories have nothing to do with genetics or biology.

The notion that there is a black genome or an Hispanic genome or a Native American genome is ludicrous. There is tremendous variation in the genomes of the most common racial categories used in America. Think about it — what is the biological basis for the Asian category? There is far more in common genetically between the Census Bureau's racial groups than there are differences. If advances in genetics have shown us anything since the mapping of the human genome 15 years ago it is that there is zero overlap between the terms the census is using and biology.

Worse, the terms are the product of nothing but racism. The old "one-drop" rule continues to apply in how many people divide whites from blacks — any black ancestry makes you black. Remember the old days of quadroons and mulattos — the racism that inspired these racial categories simply became unacceptable in American society? Nothing changed about biology.
Who is a Native American? A person who may be of mixed ancestry who may look anything but stereotypically Native American but who speaks a tribal language and holds a high office in a tribal government? Is there any reason other than racism to lump together Hispanics as a class that captures anything significant except a connection to Spanish and Spanish colonialism?

Consider how other parts of the world with very different histories than ours think about racial categories. India has all manner of divisions of its people that would never even occur to an American. When the British controlled India they introduced a whole scheme of "races" based upon the assumption that certain groups were more warlike and combative than others. They divided the entire spectrum of Indian ethnic groups into two categories: a "martial race" and a "nonmartial race." Dogras, Gurkhas, Garhwalis, Devars, Sikhs, Jats and Pashtuns were the martial races — as it turns out they were also the groups who were initially more accepting of British rule. The everyday classification of racial groups in the Balkans, Africa, China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa (pre- and post-apartheid) shows that what we think of as natural racial divisions are not seen that way in other countries. By using our race categories decade after decade, the Census Bureau reinforces categories that are nothing more than the results of a racism-tainted tale of who got to America first and who followed — combined with a hefty dollop of 18th-century European colonialist thinking.

The attempt to put everyone into a totally fabricated, socially constructed box also means that the growing number of mixed-race Americans have to make a choice or become "other." Even President Barack Obama is described as black when there is no reason he could not be classified as white but for the racist past of the country he was born in. Why force the notion of mixed race on anyone much less let it be an accepted part of government policy?

The lobby to keep race as a key driver in the census is powerful. Many see their jobs and futures tied to resources that are allocated by race. Others fear a loss of identity if racial categorizations are allowed to erode. They are wrong.

India did away with divisive, historically racist, racial categories in its census in 1951. It is time for Congress to tell the Census Bureau to do the same.

Arthur Caplan is head of the division of medical ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center.