Category of 'other' looks for some clout Census who's who due some study

April 12, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

When the 1990 census left them with no options for describing their race other than black, Asian-Pacific Islander, white or American Indian, half of California's Hispanics identified themselves as "other."

In fact, so many checked "other" that the category -- intended as a tiny fraction of the whole -- swelled to include 13 percent of the state's population.

Now -- finally, some say -- the federal government is rethinking the categories as congressional hearings begin Wednesday into redefining the way the federal government pigeonholes Americans.

Many Hispanics identify their race as "brown" or mestizo or Latino. "I don't really consider myself Caucasian," said Jose Arroyo, 30, of San Jose, Calif. "My roots go down into the Indians of Mexico. A lot of people who put 'other' were probably trying to say that."

But Hispanics aren't the only ones who feel slighted by the statistical sorting. Many Arabs, such as Maha El-Sheikh of San Jose, say the possibility of change comes not one moment too soon.

It's not just ethnic pride that makes people passionate about the subject. Jobs, scholarships, federal funds and enforcement of civil rights laws all are tied to racial categorization.

The present system fails, critics say, because the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States is changing faster than the government's ability to measure.

Then, too, the terms Americans use to describe themselves are changing. The 1990 census, for example, had a question -- separate from the one about race -- to inquire about "Hispanic origin." The distinction between race and ethnicity was lost.

"A record number of Americans are foreign-born, and fully one-quarter of us are people of color. Traditional measurements of ethnicity and race may no longer reflect that growing diversity," said Rep. Tom Sawyer, an Ohio Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Census, Statistics and Postal Personnel.

Mr. Sawyer's subcommittee will hold the hearings. When they begin, Carlos Fernandez will make sure Congress hears the plight of those he calls the orphans of the government's system of racial categories: people of mixed races.

The last American law against miscegenation -- the mixing of races -- was struck down in 1967 when the Supreme Court overturned a Virginia statute outlawing mixed marriages.

But U.S. society still won't acknowledge biracial or multiracial people, said Mr. Fernandez, a Berkeley, Calif., lawyer who founded the Association of Multiethnic Americans, a national confederation of local interracial groups.

Mr. Fernandez wants federal data gathering expanded to include at least the race of both parents. "It's a big deal," he said. "We are challenging a cultural theme of American life."

If you're interested

The deadline for written public comment on racial and ethnic categories is May 7. Write: Subcommittee on Census, Statistics and Postal Personnel, 515 O'Neill House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515. To contact the Association of Multiethnic Americans, phone (510) 644-6202.

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