The Census Bureau follows a two-step process that even census officials concede leads to some confusion -- and results in the undercounting of Hispanics. The government first asks individuals whether they belong to one of four racial groups: 1) American Indian or Alaskan Native; 2) Asian or Pacific Islander; 3) black; 4) white. Based on a directive from Congress issued in 1977, the census then goes on to ask about a single ethnic group, Hispanic.
This system, considered awkward by critics, came about because Latinos are not a distinct racial group. Hispanics can be either black or white -- or of mixed race. But many, if not most Mexican-Americans, the dominant Hispanic group in the United States, trace their ancestry to both Indian and Spanish origins. For that reason, census takers have discovered that the dual questions confuse many people.
Katzen said that the bureau has discovered that if the ethnic question is asked prior to the racial question, more people identify themselves as Hispanic. Other jurisdictions have simplified the matter by asking people to identify themselves as white, black, Hispanic, Asian -- or a mixture.
"The census is out to lunch," says San Francisco Bay Area lawyer Carlos A. Fernandez, a founder of the Association of Multi-Ethnic America. "Hispanics are not an ethnic group -- they are a collection of ethnic groups."
Sensibilities about racial classifications -- and the definitions of the Census Bureau -- have changed throughout the nation's history. Two hundred years ago, the categories were: free white male; free white female; and slave. In 1820, the category "free colored" was added; in 1850, "mulatto" was a category -- one that brought with it lesser rights for mixed-race people.
Nearly A century and a half later, commentator Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute says multiracial children represent "the best hope for the future of American race relations." But the vexing question remains: How should they be counted?
Since 1994, a 50-member committee from 18 government agencies has studied this question. The recommendations are scheduled to be placed in the Federal Register, probably this week. The choices range from minor tinkering to a major revamping.
One suggestion is to allow people simply to check more than one box on the form. A second is to include a new category, called "multi-racial" or "multi-ethnic." A third is a combination of the two: Ask the multiracial question, but then have respondents check boxes signifying the racial and ethnic groups they come from.
OMB officials insist they are solely concerned with collecting accurate information. But the underlying politics might be hard to ignore. Although this was not a partisan issue in the states, in Washington it has become one, with conservative Republicans in Congress lining up behind a multiracial category and liberal Democrats defending the status quo.
Inside the White House, officials say that ultimately this must be decided by the president. One top aide said he suspects the president's heart will be with the desires of mixed-race Americans, while his mind will not want to undermine affirmative action or other programs designed to assist blacks and Latinos. "We really don't know what to do," he said.
Pub Date: 6/29/97