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The Census and Race—Part I--Key Issues

What can science tell us about the census's race questions?

U. S. Census Bureau Seal


There is a longstanding consensus among scientific specialists--evolutionary biologists and biological anthropologists--that the human species has no races in the biological sense. What people look like and people's genes vary gradually around the planet, with the great majority of variation in Africa where our species originated, and where humans have lived the longest. If humans did have biological races, they would all be in Africa.

There is also a cultural concept of race. This concept varies from culture to culture, and changes over time within any given culture. In the United States, factors such as the ends of slavery and of segregation, waves of immigration from various parts of the world, and patterns of intermarriage have all contributed to changing Americans' cultural concept of race in the past, and can be expected to do so in the future.

The government needs the census to count the population and collect statistics about various legally defined groups, so that appropriations can be properly distributed. However, in the 2010 Census questions 8 and 9 needlessly muddle the cultural and biological race concepts. In addition, they ask individuals to choose among cultural categories that do not correspond to common usage--thereby unnecessarily antagonizing or perplexing many people. For example, if asked to list races, most Americans would offer some variant of the terms white, black, and Asian--perhaps adding American Indian and/or Latino. (They might even include Arab--a term missing from the Census.) In contrast, the Census lists 15 races but excludes Latino. Most Americans would agree that discrimination against Latinos is a form of racial discrimination. But by separating question 8 about Latinos from question 9 about race, thereby insisting that Latinos are not a race, the Census needlessly contradicts cultural assumptions.

The following detailed presentation of questions 8 and 9 makes clear the problems they create. Question 8 asks if you are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, and makes you choose one of the following options: (1) No; (2) Yes, Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano; (3) Yes, Puerto Rican; (4) Yes, Cuban; (5) Yes, another Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin (and leaves a space for you to write in the term).

Question 9 asks your race and allows you to check one or more of the following races: (1) White; (2) Black, African American, or Negro; (3) American Indian or Alaskan Native (and leaves a space for you to write in your enrolled or principal tribe); (4) Asian Indian; (5) Chinese; (6) Filipino; (7) Japanese; (8) Korean; (9) Vietnamese; (10) Other Asian (and leaves a space for you to write in your race); (11) Native Hawaiian; (12) Guamanian or Chamorro; (13) Samoan; (14) Other Pacific Islander (and leaves a space for you to write in your race); and (15) Some other race (and leaves a space for you to write in your race).

One might well ask, "Why these, and only these races, and not others?" And why does Question 9 not allow an option of "No race"--the only biologically correct answer?

The Census needlessly offends many Americans by asking them their race. Furthermore, a large percentage of respondents--mainly, but not exclusively, Latinos--will find question 9 needlessly confusing. They will likely check "some other race" for question 9, as they did in 2000; and many will fill in the box with terms from question 8, such as "Mexican American" or "Hispanic." This will create unnecessary problems in analyzing the data.

There is a better and simpler way to collect the needed information. It maintains the census's terminology and avoids unnecessarily introducing the confusion about race. All that is needed is to: (1) combine all the descriptive terms in questions 8 and 9 into a single question, (2) replace the word "race" with the word "term," and (3) ask (a) which of the following terms describe you? (check as many as apply) and (b) replace the parenthetical instruction to write in the race with one to write in the term.

This simple solution would allow the government to obtain the numbers it needs and allows individuals to choose the terms they prefer to describe themselves. It also avoids putting the government in the position of making people choose their race when scientists agree that races don't exist.

Image Source: U. S. Census Bureau Seal

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