'Identity crisis' sparking debate over census

August 11, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Susan Graham says the U.S. Census needs a new category to describe her children's race.

Their mother is white, their father is black and that makes Ryan, 8, and Megan, 5, "multiracial," said Ms. Graham of Roswell, Ga.

"More and more parents all over our country are instilling pride in our multiracial children," she said. "Can we succeed if our children leave home only to be denied an equal place in our society?"

Her request is just one of many being heard by the House subcommittee that oversees the census as it wrestles with the increasingly complex question of how to identify Americans.

The discussion has pitted the American ideal -- that race shouldn't matter -- against the reality of a history in which it has made a big difference in how people live, work and see their roles in the community.

The nation's rich racial and ethnic diversity strains the limited racial categories -- black, white, Asian and Pacific Islanders and American Indian or Alaskan native -- into which the Census attempts to place all Americans.

For example:

* Hawaiians don't want to be lumped in the next census, as they were in 1990, with Asians or Pacific Islanders.

"As a result, there is the misperception that Native Hawaiians, who number well over 200,000, somehow 'immigrated' to the United States like other Asians and Pacific Island groups," Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii, complained at one hearing.

Mr. Akaka wants Hawaiians put in the same category as American Indians and Alaska natives. American Indians disagree, testified Rachel Joseph, interim executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

"The differences in status, relationships with the federal government, history, culture and circumstances are too great for this 'one size fits all' treatment," she said.

* There have been complaints from Arab-Americans, classified as "white" by the Census.

"We believe that this designation is inadequate and that the race choices in general have become less clear and less meaningful and have placed our community at a disadvantage as we approach the turn of a new century," testified Helen Samhan, deputy director of the Arab American Institute.

In addition to the question on race, Americans are asked on a separate question whether they are of Spanish or Hispanic origin.

Having separate questions has "confused" much of the public, said Steven Carbo, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Rather than identifying themselves racially as defined by the Census categories, nearly half of the "Latinos" surveyed identified themselves as being of an "other" race, Mr. Carbo told the subcommittee.

At the hearings, as has been the case through more than 200 years of American history, the thorniest discussion has centered on questions of black -- or African-American -- and white.

Adding the "multiracial" category would accommodate children who shouldn't be forced to choose between a mother and a father when filling out a census form, said Ms. Graham, who is executive director of Project Race, Inc., a support group for multiracial children.

But Billy J. Tidwell,of the National Urban League, said collection of accurate census data is crucial to monitoring compliance with anti-discrimination laws, andding that he is". . . concerned about the potential impact of [adding 'multiracial'] on the representation of 'blacks' or African Americans. . . . U.S. Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Ohio, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Census, Statistics and Personnel, so far has held three hearings on the issue and a fourth will be held sometime in the fall.

An outcome satisfactory to everyone will be hard to find, said Mr. Sawyer.

"Can we measure the ambiguity of the concepts we're trying to measure?" he asked rhetorically. "Not entirely. This is not an exact science."

But maybe we can do better, he added.

"We can be more frank about shortcomings in our ability to define race," said the Ohio lawmaker. "When we acknowledge that the categories are not scientifically derived, we make room for new or changing ideas that may improve our efforts to measure the nation."

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