NOT AN "OTHER"
JULY 16, 1997
Increasingly, many Americans find they don't easily fit into any racial group. But will adding a new "multiracial" category on the census take away the effectiveness of the count? After a background piece by Betty Ann Bowser, Paul Solman leads a debate.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, what should the Census Bureau do? To answer that question, we're joined by Harvard Sociologist Orlando Patterson, who has just completed a book on race: "Ordeal of Integration;" Charles Byrd publishes "Multiracial Voice," an Internet journal on mixed race issues; Carlos Fernandez founded the Association of Multiethnic Americans and teaches law at Golden Gate University. And we're trying to get his signal. We've had some trouble with it. And demographer, Linda Jacobsen, works for Claritas, a consumer database firm and also advises the Census Bureau. And welcome to you all.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
July 16, 1997
A backgrounder on the multiracial census category.
June 18, 1997
Essayist Richard Rodriguez discusses his views on checking the race box.
June 12, 1997:
Despite a clash over a ban on census sampling included in the bill, a flood relief package to help northwestern states passes Congress.
June 11, 1997:
Reps. Shimkus and Allen discuss the role of the census in flood relief problems.
U.S. Census Bureau
Mr. Byrd, should there be a multiracial box on the census form, as we've just seen some talk about?
CHARLES BYRD, Internet Journal Publisher: (New York) Yes. Well, actually the name of my publication is the Interracial Voice, not multiracial. But, yes, we've been advocating for a separate multiracial category for a number of years now. We're not terribly happy with the OMB decision. We don't think it's a great compromise. It's a step forward towards this nation recognizing multiracialialty, but it's not a huge one. The same check all that applies format could fit very easily underneath a multiracial header. What we have--what OMB has essentially recommended--
PAUL SOLMAN: OMB--you're referring to--
CHARLES BYRD: I'm sorry. The Office of Management & Budget.
PAUL SOLMAN: Which is what this--
CHARLES BYRD: Which is part of the Executive Branch and which issued its recommendation last week concerning Census 2000.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Great. So go ahead.
CHARLES BYRD: We don't particularly--a lot of us in the multiracial community don't like this because it's essentially a scheme where the government is saying, listen, you have to parcel out a portion of your identity to this group and to that group. The thing is, there's absolutely no consideration or understanding on the part of the government that a great many of us don't view these existing racial categories as valid in terms of identity or affiliation.
PAUL SOLMAN: Explain what you mean. What would be invalid about checking off several different boxes, for example?
CHARLES BYRD: Well, I consider myself to be an individual of mixed race, as we construe race to be. First of all, it's an artificial construct. It doesn't exist, except in our minds. But as we construe race to be, I'm an individual of mixed race, and I personally prefer just to leave it at that, without associating myself with these abstractions called white and black, because, after all, have you ever seen a white person, or a black person? They don't exist really. They're usually pink and brown. So I prefer just a stand-alone category with multiracial, but I do understand that a great many individuals of mixed race do prefer do check all that apply.
So my ideal scenario--until we do get to the day in this country where we can just scrap all racial classifications--give us a multiracial category and below there an optional section to check all that apply. The Charles Byrds of the world could check off one. Other individuals could check off more than apply, but you have to have an icon, a symbol that is representative of an individual of mixed race who identifies as other than mono-racial.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Well, Ms. Jacobsen, I mean, how do you look at this? Do you like the check-off provision that is now the proposal before us? How do you respond to this idea of the multiracial box?
LINDA JACOBSEN, Demographer: Well, I think the difficulty with the multiracial box is that it provides less rich information and less detail about the composition of that group that Charles is describing as being multiracial. And it also has some disadvantages in the sense that it provides less of a link to historical data on race and ethnicity, as well as providing a disadvantage, for example, to health researchers, who know that certain health conditions or health problems are linked to particular races, such as sickle cell anemia, for example.
PAUL SOLMAN: Play that out for a second. Exactly how would it work with sickle cell anemia if you did or didn't have a multiracial box? I mean, what would happen?
LINDA JACOBSEN: Well, for example, if an individual who say was black--had one parent who was black and one parent who was white--and then checked the multiracial box, they would be indistinguishable from say another individual who was multiracial, checked the multiracial box, and was say of Asian and white parentage. So a health researcher would not be able to count or to categorize those with any black heritage who might be at risk for sickle cell anemia.
PAUL SOLMAN: I see. So, Mr. Byrd, isn't that a fairly persuasive argument against having a multiracial box?
CHARLES BYRD: Well, I understand the health concerns. I just don't think they're paramount. I don't think that they are--they override the primary concern of self-identification, an individual being able to name self and to describe self, and along those lines there are some of us who are still going to pursue passage of HR-30, which is the bill presented in the House of Representatives by Congressman Petri of Wisconsin. That bill, if passed, would mandate a multiracial category on all government forms since this included that request of racial self-identification.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. So, Professor Patterson, you've heard both of these proposals, if you will, where you come down on this multiracial box, checking off more than one?
ORLANDO PATTERSON, Harvard University: I don't think we need a racial box at all. And I noticed that Mr. Byrd said that race is a social construct, something we invent, an identification, partly imposed on us, partly what we select and choose. I agree with that. The only problem is that there's another term, another category which is exactly like that, is the ethnic ancestry category.
PAUL SOLMAN: Ethnic ancestry category in the census form.
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Ethnic identification, yes, in the form, in the census form, and the racial box is, therefore, redundant, and we hear talk about racial identification. The question is what's that and how is that different from ethnic identification, and the only function it serves is to validate the notion that race is somehow something distinct and different from this thing we called ethnic identification. But if you--if you explore what exactly people say racial identification is--apart from professional racists--such as Charles Morry and so on--they will say it's a form of identification, a construct. But that's exactly what ethnic identification is. And we don't lose information on the ethnic question because, for example, people are asked to check on their ancestry whether they're Afro-Americans and so on, so people concerned--medical concerns about sickle cell will get their data anyway.
PAUL SOLMAN: You mean, you write in--on the form you write in what your ethnic identification is?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Yes. You're asked, yes, to give your ethnic ancestry, in addition to being asked your racial ancestry. And my question is, having learned that someone is Afro-American, Filipino-American, Chinese-American, why the devil do we need to also ask what's your race.
PAUL SOLMAN: So Mr. Byrd, what about that? I mean, if you can already put in whatever you choose, why do you need this extra box?
CHARLES BYRD: Well, first of all, I read Prof. Patterson's op-ed in last week's New York Times and it's a great--there's a large area of agreement between the two of us. I appreciated him coming out with it. I think academics need to do more of this. I think they've fallen short over the decades in terms of trying to challenge this rigid system of racial classification. I think that Prof. Patterson will have to recognize that the civil rights community would fight him vigorously if there was a serious proposal to drop all racial classifications and merely identify ethnically.
So he's got a point, but will it--when will that become a reality? When will we as a society become sufficiently enlightened to do away with racial classifications? I don't think it's going to be done overnight. It might be a hundred years, it might be five hundred years. So all--my stance all along has been saying until you get to that day where you no longer ask the stupid question what race are you. Allow those of us who are construed to be of mixed race or mixed ancestry or mixed descent, give us a viable option to these rigid mon-racial categories.
PAUL SOLMAN: And civil rights groups would fight it and have been talking against it, why--against his position--for what reason.
CHARLES BYRD: Well, in America is part black is considered all black according to the "one drop rule." And--
PAUL SOLMAN: The "one drop rule" is--
CHARLES BYRD: The "one drop rule" being that if you had at least one African for bearer going back as far as you can possibly track it down, you are black in America, even though you might be as white-looking as Bill Clinton or George Bush.
PAUL SOLMAN: One drop of blood, in other words?
CHARLES BYRD: One drop. Well, it has nothing to do with blood, but historically, it's been associated with that. So the black political leadership in this country is fearful that their numbers--that the number of "official blacks" will drop if people identify themselves honestly and accurately as multiracial, instead of--instead of black. And they fear diminishment of their crude political power because of that.
PAUL SOLMAN: Oh, I see. Is that true, Mr. Patterson?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: First of all, I think he's correct, but I think it's really unfortunate that people should insist on perpetuating racial categorization because of their own concerns about their constituents and their jobs. Second is they're misinformed. The census, itself, has done studies about what the effect would be on the constituents that a number of people who identify themselves as Afro-American--from that, it would affect less than one percent of people who now define themselves as Afro-Americans, so it's an unnecessary concern.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, Ms. Jacobsen, do you agree? Is that true? Is it an unnecessary concern? Are people arguing over nothing here?
LINDA JACOBSEN: I don't think it's an unnecessary concern, and let me just make one additional response to Dr. Patterson's previous comment. The difficulty with substituting ancestry for race is that the ancestry question is only asked on the sample form of the census, not on the 100 percent form that's sent to all households. So were we to substitute that, we would lose that information on racial identity from the sample that's sent to all households. And as everyone may be aware, there is considerable congressional debate right now over whether or not they even intend to fund the sample or long firm in Census 2000. So we may not have any information about ancestry in 2000 as it currently stands. My second point would be--
PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, please.
LINDA JACOBSEN: --that whether or not we like it, whether or not we think that should be the case, historically certain population and specifically racial groups have suffered discrimination on the basis of their race and ethnicity. And if we can--if we discontinue collecting that information, we don't eliminate discrimination, we really eliminate our ability to measure it and to monitor compliance with civil rights laws such as Mr. Byrd suggested.
CHARLES BYRD: Well, could I just add one thing. I think this fear of hurting the official minority communities is really nonsense because if they lose "numbers," due to the establishment of a multiracial category, then, in fact, they have been claiming all along individuals who they had no right to claim. If I opt--if I opt for a multiracial identifier, I find it offensive that you would still want to lump me in with the black category. Nothing against blacks, but let me identify the way "I" want to, and Prof. Patterson is absolutely correct. Census sampling data suggests that only 1 percent of the population would avail itself of this category if it were available. So it's nonsensical to say that a large chunk of individuals who have heretofore identified as black would shift over to the multiracial category. That's an unconscionable scare tactic that the black political establishment has been perpetrated.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, you use the word nonsensical. Ms. Jacobsen, would you like to respond to that? We have only a little time left.
LINDA JACOBSEN: Yes. I would just note that the beauty of the current proposal of allowing individuals to mark more than one race is that that doesn't make any predetermination about how that data will be tabulated. The OMB right now is putting together a working group to advise them specifically on those kinds of tabulation guidelines. So I think Mr. Byrd is reaching conclusions prematurely in terms of how that data is tabulated. If you allow people to mark both black and white and et cetera, you can tabulate the data a number of different ways. And secondly, I would just note that while he likes the multiracial category, in essence, that implies that it is a homogeneous or uniform group, and there are a number of individuals potentially who say they are, you know, American and Asian, or white and Asian, who don't want to be lumped together with black Puerto Ricans, or something along those lines.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. We have to end it here. I only got through half my questions, and we're sorry, we couldn't get Carlos Fernandez either. But thank you all very much.