New racial statistics grabbed the headlines recently; the paper and evening news provided the latest Census counts of the population, broken down by race and ethnicity. We generally accept these facts as the result of scientific methods of data collection and analysis and think of them as politically neutral. However, we must remember that just as the Census results are used to shape our political landscape, racial categories are also political, with history and ideology behind them.
In 1977, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) set out to establish official classifications of race and ethnicity. They recognized four racial categories American Indians or Alaskan Natives, Asian or Pacific Islanders, Black and White and two ethnic groups Hispanic Origin and Not of Hispanic Origin.
After the 1990 census enumeration, critics argued that these classifications did not reflect the increasing diversity of the population. So the OMB divided the Asian or Pacific Islander category into two Asian and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. They also allowed people to characterize themselves as more than one race, which about 2 percent of the population did in 2000.
But the OMB is still limiting the conversation about diversity to a defined group of categories. The Census raises several important questions. What is race? Its not biological; the human genome project proved that. Is it political? Is it social? Or is it psychological? What is the difference between race and ethnicity? And why do these categories have so much significance in America?
According to the latest figures from the 2000 Census, the Hispanic population grew by 60 percent during the 90s. The new racial counts reflect real demographic shifts; they also result from changing Census policies.
The so-called Hispanic population is a creation of a political directive: The OMB instructed the Census Bureau to make Hispanic a category. This reflects the governments desire to establish as a distinct group people with origins south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Why did the Census Bureau decide to juxtapose an ethnic designation like Hispanic with a racial designation like Black? Ethnicity and race are not interchangeable categorizations. This creates confusion: A full 43 percent of Hispanics dont see themselves fitting into any of the Census racial categories. Almost 95 percent of the people who answered Other with regard to the race question are Hispanic.
Racial classification of data is necessarily political. The government uses racial data from the Census in drawing legislative districts, monitoring compliance with anti-discrimination and civil-rights legislation, and estimating race-specific population size and change.
But theres a difference between policies that perpetuate racial stratification and policies that seek to eradicate inequality. It is good that the Census Bureau collected the racial data, but they should have statistically adjusted these numbers prior to their release so that the Census could be a tool for combating, rather than perpetuating, racial misinformation and inequality.
Undercounting people is nothing new to the Census. Originally, the Constitution directed enumerators to count enslaved Africans as three-fifths of a person, and counted only the civilized among Native Americans. While racial groups are no longer so deliberately undercounted, many experts believe Census Bureau practices still missed millions of people in 2000, mostly city-dwelling people of color.
It is still not too late for the Federal government to use adjusted numbers for the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds, and to use all their data to pursue justice.
Tukufu Zuberi is a professor of African studies. His book, Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.
Originally published on April 19, 2001