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How to be a
person, not a number, on the U.S. Census
How to be a person, not a number, on the U.S. Census
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Apr 3, 1998
Authors: Dennis Baron
Subject Terms: Census of Population Race
Minority & ethnic groups
In response to the increasing number of people who don't fit into just one racial category, the Census Bureau will allow Americans to check more than one box in the race/ethnicity section of the questionnaire.
Copyright Chronicle of Higher Education Apr 3, 1998
LAST OCTOBER, the federal government announced that for the census in 2000, Americans of mixed racial backgrounds may check off as many racial categories as they want. For much of my life, I have routinely checked "other" when confronted with the race question. If there was no "other" box on the form, I put one in. Now, although the "other" box is gone, it appears that my options will be expanded. It also means that I will have to make some decisions about who I am, and about whether I will continue to identify myself as "other."
The federal government is finally catching up with the fact that race, for many people, is not a simple issue. The government has always kept track of race in the decennial census, as part of its constitutional mandate to describe the makeup of the American population accurately. In recent years, however, because the enforcement of civil-rights laws, redistricting of Congressional seats, and distribution of federal funds all hinge on the accurate counting of members of minority groups, the Census Bureau has come under pressure from leading minority groups to maximize the head count of their constituencies.
In response to the increasing number of people who complain that they don't fit into just one category, the Census Bureau initially proposed adding the category "multiracial" to the 2000 census. But when major civil-rights organizations expressed the fear that the "multiracial" category would dilute the numbers within their respective groups, the bureau abandoned the proposal in favor of allowing Americans to check more than one box in the race/ethnicity section of the questionnaire.
Though technically I am a person of mixed race, with a Bengali father and a New York-Jewish mother, racial identity has been of less significance in my life than, say, the fact that I am short, lefthanded, and have fairly small feet. America's insistence on defining everyone by race bothers me, because I don't like being labeled, and I don't like being told to label myself. Am I a person of color? Isn't everyone?
As a nation, we are openly, sometimes happily, multi-ethnic, multicultural, and, in our capitalism, multinational. Our religions are diverse, as is our politics. And we acknowledge, less reluctantly than in the past, our rapidly growing multiracial population. After all, we fought a world war to reject the pernicious notion of racial purity. Still, up to now, the census allocated us only one race per person.
Walt Whitman subsumed all of American diversity when he declared, "I embrace multitudes." As for me, I have embraced "other." I was happy not choosing a single race; I've always taken a perverse satisfaction in being "other." That is partly because people look at me and assume that, because my skin isn't particularly dark and I sound like a New Yorker, I am not other at all.
Being quietly other is my way of resisting people's definitions of me. Some people might say that my identification with my Indian ancestry is just a feeble attempt to be exotic when I'm really-as an Iranian friend once put it-just another New York Jew stuck in the Midwest. Cynics might say I want to play the multiracial card only when it's convenient. For example, they may distrust my recent interest in AsianAmerican fiction and wonder about my motives for helping to establish my university's new Asian-American-studies program. Of course, they're all right.
But I'm not the only one playing cards here. The Constitution dictates that it is the job of the census to define me, to quantify me, to count me in a way that Congress sees as useful. The Constitution originally counted the American population as "the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed," plus "three fifths of all other Persons." Because not all Americans were considered as people, or at least not as "whole" people, in 1789, the census has included racial data ever since the first count in 1790.
FOR CENSUS 2000, the Census Bureau called for public consultation in revising its racial and ethnic categories. Arabs, Creoles, American Samoans, Guamanians, and Cape Verdeans complained that they did not fit the existing categories. Other people argued that since no races are pure, racial categories are meaningless. Someone suggested adding a skin-color chart to the census so that people could match themselves to a hue. Some respondents were worried about the validity of letting people identify themselves and of letting a census-taker determine one's race.
Before dropping the idea of a multiracial category, the Census Bureau did make projections about the effect that such a category might have on its head count. Bureau research showed that about I per cent of the population might identify itself as multiracial, and that the numbers of blacks, American Indians, and Hispanics would not be significantly reduced if such a category were added. The effect of a multiracial category on the Asian-American count was not quite so clear (for example, children with one white and one Asian parent often identify themselves as white). Since racial statistics are used to enforce civil-rights laws, any undercounting could have unwelcome ramifications. The established races don't want to lose numbers to an upstart group like "other," whose members have so little in common.
But now that the multiracial category is out, the Census Bureau is worried that the check-all-that-apply system it has come up with will complicate the technology needed to tally the results and thus add to the expense of the census. Indeed, although people can check more than one box, the government hasn't decided how it will interpret the new data, or what effect the information might have in the various areas in which tracking race has been important-for example, in Congressional redistricting.
At the same time that it dropped the proposed multiracial category in favor of multiple-choice answers, the Census Bureau also revised its way of categorizing race and ethnicity. The new categories include "American Indian or Alaska Native," "Black or African American" (instead of just "black"), and "white," a category that remains unchanged. The old category "Asian or Pacific Islander" has been split into two--"Asian" and "Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander." The designation "Hispanic origin" has become "Hispanic or Latino."
The regrouping won't satisfy all those who have raised questions about census categories. People who check Hispanic or Latino are also supposed to check a racial category, but they won't always do so. Some Native Hawaiians feel that they should be grouped with Americans, not other Pacific Islanders. Some people of Middle Eastern background may not relish sorting themselves into the categories "white" or "Asian." And there still are no appropriate categories for South American Indians, who may be neither Latino nor Native American.
I appreciate the Census Bureau's concern for precision in categorizing me. But the racial categories of the census have always been fluid. In its report announcing the new racial categories, the bureau acknowledges that "Asian Indians . . . were counted as 'Hindus' in censuses from 1920 to 1940, as 'White' from 1950 to 1970, and as `Asians or Pacific Islanders' in 1980 and 1990." My father was counted as a Hindu by the census in 1940 (his family was actually Christian), but under the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, he could not be a citizen. So much for precision, not to mention civil rights.
IF I WERE PERMITTED to define myself as multiracial in the census, the numbers of what we consider "underrepresented minorities" would not suffer, because Asians of Indian origin, let alone New York-Jewish males, are not included in those groups. On the other hand, not all Asian Americans fit the mold of the "model minority" that is not considered underrepresented in education and the like. The New York Times recently reported that, according to the 1990 Census, nearly two-thirds of Hmong families from Southeast Asia live below the poverty line, compared with only 7 per cent of Japanese Americans and 13 per cent of the nation as a whole. Only 3 per cent of Hmong and 6 per cent of Cambodians in this country have college degrees, compared with 60 per cent of Asian Indians and 40 per cent of Chinese Americans.
Now that I will be allowed to check more than one category, if I identify myself on the census as a middle-class Asian American with a Ph.D., I could be obscuring the plight of the the Southeast Asians in the Times report. But I don't want to get involved in statistical manipulations. The Census Bureau's mission statement, published on its World-Wide Web page, declares that its goal is "to be the preeminent collector of timely, relevant, and quality data about the people and economy of the United States." My goal, as a writer, an academic, and a person mystified, if not frightened, by statistics, is to resist being pigeonholed. I don't object to the Census Bureau's decision not to use the multiracial category. Although the word is vague, it's a lot more precise than "other." And "precise" is not a term I usually identify with.
So, if it came down to it, I probably wouldn't have checked "multiracial" on a census form anyway. I embrace the category "other" because it is so inessential and so quintessentially human. It allows me to define myself in a way that is satisfyingly ambiguous and leaves my options open. I guess it is part of my personal mission statement to remain imprecise in the eyes of the government, to leave boxes on forms unchecked, or to defy instructions and to create the category "other" when it does not exist. That is my way of reinventing government, my attempt to remain a person instead of becoming a number.
Dennis Baron is a professor of English and linguistics and acting head of the English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.