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Racial Tallies will serve only to divide us more

The Census Bureau projected recently that by the middle of the 21st century “non-Hispanic whites” will constitute only 52.8 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanics will have doubled to 24.5 percent, blacks increased slightly to 13.6 percent and Asians almost trebled to 8.2 percent. Supposedly, the news is that high birth rates among Hispanics and immigration among Asians are changing the face of America. But, can anyone doubt the unwritten text here that an inevitable political, cultural and economic transformation is coming?

Well, count me as one who doubts it. The race and ethnicity issue is not as clear as the numbers imply because it is premised on faulty definitions. As some politicians beat the drums of group demands and others call for stringent curbs on immigration, the truth is that no one is sure what the government’s race and ethnic terms mean. Certainly no one can infer from the projections that people will behave in the future according to some fixed racial and ethnic stereotypes.

Consider two hypothetical couples, the kinds that show up repeatedly in real Census stories told, for example, at Congressional hearings.

Couple One consists of a wife whose parents were Chinese and her husband whose parents were Norwegian and Irish. When the Census rolls around, how should this couple record the race and ethnicity of its children? The Census provides little help; it counts one choice for race on the Census short form and is only somewhat more flexible for ethnicity identifications on the long form that is filled out by a population sample. It provides no “mixed race” category, which usually means that one parent’s background goes on the records and the other’s does not. Obviously, this annoys people.

Couple Two includes a husband who insists that his race and ethnicity is “American,” although he has to write it in, for no category exists for that, either. His identification may be a protest statement, in fact. If you pressed him (as Census takers do), you might find out that he has a jumble of ancestors from places like Germany and Italy, along with some whose pasts in America go back so far they are lost to the current generation. So what’s the government going to do about such situations, conduct family research and issue us all racial and ethnic identity cards?

The wife in this second couple is, it seems, “black”–“African-American.” Except that she is light skinned; there are plainly white forebears in her family background. So, in facing the Census question, what “race” should husband and wife number two put down for their children? And whatever they put down, what does it really mean? How do people like this show up in those confident sounding projections of national racial makeup a half century hence?

The answer is that race and ethnicity designations produce some of the squishiest numbers in the federal statistical system. Fifty year projections of those numbers are squishier still and subject to repeated revision.

Civilized beings love to give names to things, and then to keep refining their categories. But, in the 19th century the kinds of ethnic terms people had adopted through custom or folklore were taken up as a “scientific” project. For a long time, the inquiry seemed successful. I remember visiting Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History in the 1950’s and seeing statues and pictures of the various racial types, sub-grouped down to “Nordic” and “Slavic,” and “Semitic,” with tell-tale noses and brows painstakingly examined. Of course, the whole concept of racial designations was very popular earlier with the Nazis, and it was the basis of the boundless meddling of the apartheid system in South Africa.

But as science it was not sustainable. Prof. Lionel Tiger, the Rutgers University anthropologist, writes, “The fact is that all of contemporary population genetics and molecular biology underscores that the 19th century notion of races as discrete and different entities is false. There is only gradual genetic diversity between groups. We all merge smoothly into each other.”

Nor is Dr. Tiger alone. An assemblage of international scientists who gathered recently in Austria concluded, “Categorization of humans by distribution of genetically determined factors is artificial and encourages the production of unending lists of arbitrary and misleading social perceptions and images.”

Take the expression, “non-Hispanic white.” Can anyone say specificially what that is? Immediately, it raises the question, what is an “Hispanic white,” then–a Spaniard? (Some college scholarships disqualify Hispanic students if they are of “Iberian” descent.) How about a Chilean? What of “meztisos,” which is to say, most Mexicans, with the bloodlines of indigenous and European lines in exquisite and varied tanglement? What race, pray, is a Cuban?

Here in the United States of America, the mischief caused by “misleading images” starts with the government-ordered racial and ethnic declarations on the Census forms. Even if they were based on science one might suspect them, because they rely on self-identification. You can call yourself anything you want. A Census study showed, for example, that some 12 percent of people identifying themselves as Hispanic in one survey did not do the same in a later survey. Identification as “native American” has leaped implausibly in the past twenty years and may as likely reflect growing cultural acceptability or imagined affirmative action advantage as rising birth rates.

In other words, however we celebrate our group identities for private purposes, we seem to have reached the point where official racial and ethnic designations are more confusing than illuminating. This confusion can be dangerous. When we see racial projections spun out 55 years we are tempted to draw stereotypical conclusions, to say prejudiced things to our inner hearts, and to contribute to fears and rivalries that distort public policy. The glory of our real lives is that racial and ethnic stereotypes are slowly breaking down, so why do we make it official business to preserve them?

A small first step toward reforming this system of flawed codes might be to acknowledge that many Americans are of “mixed race” and should be allowed to list themselves that way on Census forms. Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R.-Wisconsin) has proposed that Congress authorize the Census Bureau to include such a category.

Eventually, however, we should re-evaluate the whole scheme of government-directed racial and ethnic categorization and consider retiring it to the archives. File it under “Failed 19th Century Pseudo-Science,” alongside Phrenology and Mesmerism.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.