Race and the U.S. Census: The Complexities of Race and Ethnicity

The local public radio station in my town, WNYC, has been doing a fine job of reporting on the census. The Brian Lehrer Show’s “Census Project” is a terrific resource, especially the piece on visual displays of census data and the five myths about the census.

In keeping with our series on “Race and the U.S. Census,” I thought I’d share this episode on the complexities of race and ethnicity featuring Angelo Falcón, chair of the Census Advisory Committee on the Hispanic Population, and Jeff Yang, the “Asian Pop” columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and a consumer strategist for Iconoculture, discuss questions 8 and 9 on the U.S.:

The comments (currently 78) are interesting to read as well. This person, “Sara from New York,” writes:

“I was very confused by the race question. I am Mexican American but I’m not sure what to check on the Race category? I am not white. I am of native Mexican/ Mayan decent- Does that count as Native American?? Should I write in Native Mexican??”

And, this very thoughtful comment from “Alejandro Gutierrez from Brooklyn”:

I challenge Angelo Falcón to include on the Census’ Committee on Hispanic Affairs anthropologists who are knowledgeable about indigenous issues from Latin America as it appears that his Boricua-centric social science approach to race-identity metrics seriously reflects a lack of understanding of this population. Here I highlight two issues which underscore this:

1) The Spanish translation of the bilingual Census questionnaire is so poorly translated on the race question that it will create large non-responses by indigenous populations from Guatemala, Mexico and Ecuador. The question is posed as tribal, when that concept is foreign south of the border where the terms “Indigenous populations”, “Indigenous peoples” or “Original Peoples” are more commonly used. In addition, the word “Indian” in English is literally and inappropriately translated as “india”.

2) By and large, indigenous peoples from Latin American self-identify as “indigenous”, not as Hispanics, Latinos, Ladinos, etc. Furthermore, his referencing “assimilation” as a predominant process of incorporation into US society reflects an outmoded understanding of more complex cultural processes at work. Assimilation assumes a linear process of abandonment of original cultural values, outlooks, beliefs, language, identities in favor of the dominant culture in the destination country. Clearly, the issue of indigenous identity can better be understood in the context of acculturation, a more nuanced process of cultural give-and-take than Mr. Falcon acknowledges.

The discussion between Angelo Falcón and Jeff Yang, and the dozens of comments from a diverse range of New Yorkers illustrate, trying to measure race and ethnicity in the U.S. is a very complicated task.

Counting Multiracial People in the Census: The Unfulfilled Wish for More Data

People who study the multiracial population are constantly confronted with the problem of small numbers to work with.  A recent article I co-authored on the multiracial health (Bratter, Jenifer and Bridget K. Gorman. Forthcoming. “Does Multiracial Matter? A Study of Racial Disparities in Self Rated Health. Demography)  required combining seven years of data from a health survey (over 1.7 million cases) to get 20,000 mixed-race folks for analysis.  The 2000 Census, with its “check all that apply” race question, remains the database with the largest number of cases and the 2010 Census will be the first to count race the same way as the preceding installment. While this may sound like a mundane detail, this will allow us to gauge growth, decline, or stability of this population and whether this will affect the population bases of single-race communities.  If the sheer anticipation doesn’t shake you to your core, perhaps you have forgotten the history of introducing this option into the Census.

Back in the 1990’s, deciding how to count the multiracial population was a hot political controversy, pitting two sides of a debate on race and identity against each other.  According to Williams (Williams, Kimberley M. 2006. Mark one or More: Civil Rights in Multiracial America. Boston: Harvard University Press), multiracial organizations argued that the previous approach forced mixed-race children to choose one race and one side of themselves.  Civil rights groups argued that this would weaken the population bases and the political power of monoracial groups, unnecessarily complicate the tracking of enforcement of civil rights legislation (which uses Census counts), and, unofficially provide an option for individuals who wished to abandon their race. Introducing “check all that apply”, not a single multiracial box, seemed like the perfect resolution. Multiracial people could be enumerated and be linked back to their component groups for tracking dynamics of monoracial communities.

Despite these hopes and fears, things remained pretty much the same.  Although about 6.7 million persons (no small demographic potatoes) choose two or more races, it made the biggest difference for groups that had faced issues of mixed-heritage and identity for centuries – American Indians and Native Hawaiians.  Meanwhile, there was little movement in the population base of the largest groups: Whites, Blacks, and to a lesser extent Asians. Also, approximately half of this group was under 18, which may mean that parents of multiracial children were declaring this as a race (Jones, Nicholas and Amy S. Smith. 2001. “Two or more Races Population : 2000.” [pdf] United States Census Bureau).  As Reynolds Farley, declared in 2004, this was a “social movement that succeeded, but failed” to dramatically change our way of thinking about race (Farley, Reynolds. 2004. “Identifying with Multiple Races: A Social Movement that Succeeded but Failed?” Pp 123-128 in The Changing Terrain of Race and Ethnicity edited by Maria Krysan and Amanda Lewis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation).  Maybe it’s just about timing, as many tell me. Including multiracial in any form is a recent development, the public has simply not gotten used to checking that box (or boxes). But alas, Farley’s estimates of inter-censual growth using the American Community Survey show a decline in the percentage of people selecting more than one race, from 2.4 to 1.9 percent (Farley, Reynolds. 2006. “The Multiple Race Population: Is it increasing or decreasing?” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. Montreal, Canada).

This raises a bigger question – why haven’t things changed more?  Aren’t we living in as multiracial society as we ever have? On one hand, multiculturalism seems to be everywhere, from mixed-race celebrities and high profile interracial couples, to growing racial/ethnic diversity. And ofcourse, there’s the rise of the nation’s first openly mixed-race U.S. President.  But even Obama’s multiracial flag isn’t flown that high.  He is universally touted as our first “Black” president, a racial identity he solidly embraces.  And he’s not alone.  Several studies using 2000 data show that selecting single races for biracial children is not uncommon. Since the U.S. Census ceased using enumerators, choosing a racial category goes far beyond simple ancestral accounting, which would place most everyone in the multiracial camp if they had the option. It reflects a sense of who we are and most importantly how we are treated.

Quantifying “treatment” is never an easy task, but any cursory look at social trends tells us that lives are lived very differently by race.  The level of school segregation by race is nearly as high as it was in the 1960’s (Sikkink, David, and Michael O. Emerson. 2008. “School Choice and Racial Residential Segregation: The Role of Parent’s Education.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31:267-293), neighborhoods continue to be segregated by race (Wilkes, Irma and John Iceland, 2004.”Hypersegregatation in the 21st Century” Demography 41 (1): 23- 36), and while interracial marriage is increasing, its far lower than one would expect if race were not a factor (Qian, Zhenchao and Daniel Lichter. 2007. “Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage.” American Sociological Review 72:68-94).  White per capita income continues to exceed Black per capita income by more than 12,000 dollars and Blacks can expect to die on average 5 years sooner than their White counterparts (Heron MP, Hoyert DL, Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Kochanek KD, Tejada-Vera B. Deaths: Final data for 2006. National vital statistics reports; vol 57 no 14.[pdf] Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2009).  Despite declines in reporting overtly racist attitudes, minorities continue to report confronting racial prejudice and growing number of studies report that having these experiences is significantly detrimental to their health (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008. “Table 688. Per Capita Money Income in Current and Constant (2007) Dollars by Race and Hispanic Origin” in Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007, Current Population Reports, P60-235.  Author tabulation of difference between the per capita income (in 2007 dollars) for Blacks (alone or in combination), which was $18,107, and non-Hispanic Whites (alone), which was $31,051).

How can one sustain an identity “in-between” races when so much of our lives are patterned by racial divisions? From this vantage point, the paltry percentages and small sample sizes are yet one more testimony that we believe we are a multicultural society and but really aren’t.  However, what gets overshadowed is that race does not cease to matter just because one selects more than one. Living “in-between” races does not qualify one for a pass on discrimination. Population projections forecasting a coming white minority do not include as “white” those who select white alongside other races. And why should they, when the official policy of the Office of Management and Budget is to include those of partial minority and majority races among the minority group for civil rights purposes (Williams, David R., Harold Neighbors, and Jackson 2003. “Race/Ethnic Discrimination and Health: Findings from Community Studies.” American Journal of Public Health 93: 200-208). Other indicators follow suit.  According to our recent findings on multiracial health, those selecting more than one race do not have substantially better health that their component populations, and, in the case of White-American Indians, they report their health as significantly worse than their White counterparts (Goldstein, Joshua and Ann J. Morning. 2002. “Back in the Box:The Dilemma of Using Multiple-Race Data for Single-Race Laws.” Pp. 119-136 in The New Census Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Individuals, edited by J. Perlmann and M. C. Waters. New York: Russell Sage).  While some read these trends as examples of the unique challenges faced by the mixed-race population, this is simply a shade of the same old story: race still matters – no matter how many you choose.

So here’s my plea, if you believe you are mixed-race at all, mark those races. You’re not abandoning your tribe, nor are you escaping race.  You are just recording all your complexity, and making some researchers very happy.

~ Jenifer L. Bratter is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Rice University and Program Director for Race Scholars at Rice Institute of Urban Research (IUR).