Soundings

Amitai Etzioni
Counting by Race
Winter 1998

Announcing the new categories for the 2000 census in November, Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines stressed that the federal government wants individuals to decide for themselves which race they belong to—as long as they don't decide "multiracial." After all, if Americans could reject fixed racial identification, that would be a big step toward a less race-obsessed society. So instead of finding a multiracial category on the form, beginning in the next census, people with mixed ancestry can check off as many individual races as they want—though they won't be able to check "other" for race any longer, as 9.8 million did in the 1990 census. OMB's new census categories strike a blow against the idea that America is one community. Congress should overturn them and insist on a multiracial category.

Despite the census, America becomes more of a single community every day. Racial intermarriage continues to rise. If current rates hold steady, by the middle of the next century many millions of Americans will have mixed racial heritage. And many will refuse to consider themselves members of racial minorities. Already, according to a withheld 1997 Census Bureau survey, when asked whether they are Hispanic or black, most Cuban-Americans and many Puerto Rican and Mexican-Americans answer "white." Of course, if Americans start shedding racial identification, many entrenched public programs will dwindle. In addition—no small gain—the shift in Americans' self-understanding would help undermine the entire affirmative-action industry.

Because the census is so arcane, motivated racial activists have a nearly free field. Few in the media pay attention, and even fewer citizens. For example, how many know that activists prevented federal agencies from using the 1990 census data to allocate various entitlements, successfully prodding them to rely instead on a "modified age/race profile"? This modified profile divvies up the 9.8 million "others" of the 1990 census among established racial categories. If the census included a more attractive term than "other"—which insinuates outsider status—even more Americans would take advantage of it for the 2000 census. "Multiracial" is one possibility; I prefer "all-American."

A clever maneuver derailed the multiracial category for Census 2000. Mixed-ancestry Americans now can check off many races on the new forms: black, native Hawaiian, Asian, and so on. However, census bureaucrats have already stated that they will not count these Americans as multiracial in the official numbers but will classify them as blacks or Hispanics whenever possible. The likely result: the federal government maintains or increases minority set-asides, entitlements, and quotas.

Census categories affect elections, too. The Voting Rights Act prohibits redrawing congressional districts if this dilutes minority representation. By insisting that those who mark multiple categories are "minorities," racial activists can prevent redistricting where it is otherwise acceptable. A White House representative already informed a congressional committee last July that the government will treat those partially black—even those who might have only one black ancestor—as if they were fully black for redistricting purposes. Thus, the White House returns us blindly to a darker period of American history, when southern whites decided who was white and who was black, and "one drop of black blood" was definitive.

Census officials hide behind a technicality. If we add a multiracial category, they complain, we can't compare the 2000 numbers with earlier census numbers. Baloney. The census plans to drop the "other" category, and it makes changes all the time, sometimes with good reason. Well-established statistical procedures exist to make comparisons even when the census uses different categories.

If the census allowed Americans to leave racial identity behind, is it unrealistic to imagine that many other institutions—colleges, businesses, courtrooms—might follow? If Congress overturns OMB's bad decision, perhaps we can hope for a less raceconscious census entering the next millennium.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
More by Amitai Etzioni:
If you liked this story, you may also be interested in:
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: