Not a black-and-white issue any more

July 30, 1996|By Joan Beck

IF THE NEW Betty Crocker, unveiled this spring by General Mills, were a real person, the U.S. Census Bureau wouldn't know what to do with her.

It doesn't know what to do about millions of other Americans who don't fit neatly into the arbitrary categories the Census Bureau continues to use. And time is running out to bring the once-a-decade head count into sync with today's racial realities.

Betty Crocker is no longer depicted as a white suburban mom. She has grown less matronly and more businesslike as General Mills has updated her image repeatedly. Her new picture is a computer-generated composite of 75 American women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds with features suggestive not only of Caucasians, but also Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.

Round pegs, square holes

How would the Census Bureau expect a real Betty Crocker to fit into its standard racial categories: white, black, American Indian and Alaska native and Asian and Pacific islander? An ''other'' classification was added in 1990 and a separate question asked about ''Hispanic'' origin, both of which confused people.

Now, as plans are underway for the 2000 census, pressures are growing to make the government stop shoehorning millions of Americans into racial slots that aren't accurate or realistic. What's also at stake is the nation's racial spoils system with all the political and economic benefits that come with minority identifications.

The least the Census Bureau should do is add a ''multiracial'' category to reflect the rapidly increasing number of people of mixed-race heritage. Interracial marriages have been increasingly rapidly in recent years, especially between blacks and whites. The 1990 census counted 3 million people who said they were married to or living with a person of another race. They had about 2 million biracial or multiracial children.

Last week, a new study showed that in 1993, 12 percent of all new marriages involving an African American were interracial. That's almost double the number in 1980.

Americans of other minorities intermarry in much larger percentages, up to 12 percent for Asian men, 25 percent for Asian women and 60 percent for Native Americans. Their children do not fit comfortably or honestly into the racial categories used not only by the Census Bureau but by the federal government as a whole.

Public schools, particularly in areas heavily impacted by

immigration, are well aware that substantial numbers of their students can't be described accurately by the federal racial classifications. A study this spring shows that while almost half of school systems ask parents to choose one of the federal racial categories for their children, many also use ''other'' or "multiracial" and some simply ask parents for their own label. In one school out of four, a teacher or administrator does the assigning based on what a child or a parent looks like.

But even when ''other'' and ''multiracial'' tags are allowed by schools, the answers still have to be squeezed into the federal categories when they are reported to the government.

Several states have attempted to deal with the problem by passing laws requiring more classifications. That just added to the confusion. But changing the federal racial classifications to reflect the new American realities is arousing some bitter opposition. Civil rights organizations and black activists, in particular, fear that a ''multiracial'' category would reduce the official size of black and minority groups, weaken their political power and reduce the help they now get from federal programs.

Political ramifications

Racial data from the census is widely used as evidence of discrimination against blacks, for example, to protect civil rights of minorities and to measure racial integration. It also plays a role in drawing many political boundaries, from city councils to congressional districts, although a recent Supreme Court decision raised legal doubts about the practice.

Racial head-counting has always been a part of the American census, ever since 1790 when its statistical categories were free white males, free white females, all other free persons and slaves.

Now the head-counting is far more complicated and less accurate. Not only is the American population far more diverse, but confusions about the difference between race and ethnicity are widespread. Some people think ''multiracial'' means having parents or grandparents who are Irish and Polish or Italian and Czech, for example. Even scientists have grown skeptical of racial identifications, knowing how thin the line is between racial groups and how much it has been weakened by migration patterns and intermarriage.

A strong case can be made that government shouldn't be collecting racial statistics at all. For example, Dinesh D'Souza argues in his book, ''The End of Racism,'' that there should be a separation of state and race, that the government should stop identifying people by race and be forbidden to make race-based decisions.

Growing opposition to affirmative action as race-based government policy also fuels the argument that racial head-counting by government is no longer appropriate. Socioeconomic and cultural factors play a larger role in determining poverty levels and opportunities than race itself, many political theorists now insist.

The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the current racial categories and trying to determine what the effects of proposed changes would be. It's probably too soon to wean ourselves and the government away from the obsession with race and its exaggerated consequences. But until we can, the census should at least get the facts straight.

Joan Beck is a columist for the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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