Clarence Page has written an interesting column, but he should know better than to blindly follow Ken Prewitt, who obviously wants publicity for his new book. Page knows that multiracial people can check more than one race on the US Census. Trust me, he knows. Prewitt knows, too.
I would also be happy if our country did away with racial classifications, but I don't think we are ready for that. No one would be black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc. No one could get entitlements based on race or ethnicity. What do YOU think? - Susan Graham
How to update census' race question
May 05, 2013|Clarence Page
The official US Census form, pictured on March 18, 2010 in Washington, DC, is required to be filled out and returned to the US Government by April 1, 2010. (Paul J. Richards)
A notable example of how Americans fall through the cracks in census data-gathering caught my eye recently. It appeared on the black-oriented TheRoot.com website under this intriguing headline: "I found one drop; can I be black now?"
The "one drop" is a reference to the old oddly American racial rule that one drop of "black blood" in your veins makes you black. As a full-fledged black American, I wondered who is 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. Through genealogical records she 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 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 on the U.S. census. And that's just one area of government forms not keeping up with America's changing demographics.
On question No. 9 in the 2010 form, for example, you can check "white" or "black, African-American or Negro" or "American Indian or Alaska Native." Then there are 11 other choices that are ethnic nationalities in Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Hispanics are mentioned in a separate question, clearly as an ethnic group, apparently in response to the 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 leaves out mention of the entire Arab world, among other significant regions, leaving those individuals to check some other group's box or write something in the catchall box labeled "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 survey 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 wrote to me in an email.
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 alone now. Yet we still tend to stick with it officially, in our daily conversations — and even in a popular children's song about how God loves all the little children in the world. ("Red and yellow, black and white/They're all precious in his sight ...")
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.
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 questions about race while phasing in new questions 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 working.
Whether Prewitt's scheme is widely embraced, it's worth talking about. Americans are changing too much for us to squeeze ourselves into the old boxes.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.