On Race and the Census: Struggling With Categories That No Longer Apply
February 5, 2007
Imagine the Census Bureau announcing that it would end the practice of asking people to identify themselves by race beginning in 2010. Black elected officials and their allies in the civil rights community would fight the proposal tooth and nail by arguing that racial statistics were necessary for enforcing civil rights laws — especially the Voting Rights Act — and that dropping race from the census would dilute black political strength. Enemies of affirmative action would jump for joy, believing that they had finally won.
But these antagonists aren’t the only factions in the fight. A growing number of demographers and historians who are fully sympathetic to the civil rights struggle would probably be happy to see the word “race” disappear from the census as well. There seems to be an emerging consensus that the system of racial classification that has dominated national politics and the census for nearly two centuries is so fraught with imprecision — and so tainted by racist ideas that have been disproved by science — that it should eventually be dropped altogether.
This view has been percolating among census historians for years. But it has gained traction since the 1990s, when there was a pitched battle over a proposal that would have added a “multiracial” category to the 2000 census. A compromise allowed people to check more than one box for race. But that change only fueled the debate by revealing a conflict between the fixed racial categories that have long dominated American life and a different sense of identity that’s clearly on the rise among younger Americans.
Most Americans think of racial categories as objective, even benign, descriptions that are part of the social fabric. But the historian Margo Anderson writes that official statistics on “race” or “color” were inaugurated into the federal statistical system in the early 19th century. By then the government had embraced the view that people of African descent were from genetically inferior ancestral groups and could never escape subordinate status.
Armed with this view, the Census Bureau became the fountainhead of 19th-century racist dogma. The bureau reported, for example, that free black people were disproportionately insane, thus supporting the view that slavery was the only suitable status for them. It actively promoted the eugenicist view that Americans of African descent were so inferior and ill equipped to survive that they would eventually become extinct.
The bureau during this period was obsessed with the notion that sexual contact between people of African and European dissent was polluting the theoretically “pure” white society. The belief that the so-called “races” had been set apart by God and nature led to the popular theory that children of mixed ancestry were akin to mules, which are sterile, and would die out after a single generation.
With an eye out for what the government saw as racial abomination, census wardens went house to house, eyeballing ostensibly white people for traces of creeping “blackness.” This period marked the rise of the so-called “one-drop rule” — which defined as black anyone with any African heritage at all. That often meant banishment from jobs, housing and public schools set aside for whites. The “one-drop rule” has been stripped of its worst penalties. But it is still evident in the census, as Kim Williams of Harvard points out in her recent book, “Mark One or More: Civil Rights in Multiracial America.” For example, people who checked both “white” and one minority race in 2000 were counted in a single-race minority group.
The system of racial classification used in this country will never be scrubbed clean of its racist origins. Indeed, the seemingly innocuous act of assigning people to “races” still sets them sociologically and biologically apart in a way that scientists and anthropologists have long since rejected. The Americans who checked more than one box in 2000 seem to reject this fixed, “one drop” formulation of race.
Many people now see race as a facet of personal identity that changes from time to time or even from place to place. In a follow-up survey just a year after the initial 2000 census, for example, about 4 of 10 people who had listed more than one race decided to change their responses. Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University professor and former census director, wrote in the journal Daedalus in 2005 that these people seem to see race not as a fixed demographic fact, but as “something closer to an attitude toward oneself.”
The 2000 census suggests that we are gradually moving away from the rigid, racialist system of classification that has long dominated this country and toward a system that sees racial identity as more fluid. Even historians and demographers who sympathize with the civil rights struggle and who recognize the need to document discrimination now see that the “one-drop rule” will not be sustainable in the new, multiracial America. We may be stuck with the old formulation for the moment. But it’s no longer a matter of if it will fall away. It’s a matter of when.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company