126 races on census make for 1 big mess
By ALICIA CALDWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2001
Susan Graham looked with dismay at the form before her -- it just didn't fit her family.
The year was 1990. The questionnaire was the census.
She was being asked to check a box and classify her children by race. To call them white would deny their father's contribution; black would negate her.
The dilemma Graham faced was the genesis of her fight with the government that, with the support of others, prompted the revision of certain categories for the 2000 census.
The change allowed respondents to choose from 126 race and Hispanic origin combinations, instead of the previous 10. Census numbers released Monday showed 6.8-million people marked two race categories.
Progress for an ever-diversifying culture? Absolutely, Graham said.
Trouble? You bet.
As the country absorbs this first round of census numbers that include race and Hispanic origin, statisticians have been busy devising ways to make the numbers comparable to those from 1990.
Comparing, as it turns out, is a necessary evil. How do you say anything intelligent about how society has changed if you cannot measure differences? How do you compare apples to oranges when you have to? The short answer is that you turn apples into oranges, with imperfect results.
Federal agencies are finding themselves in such a position as they prepare to measure how the racial makeup of a legislative district has changed -- necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects the rights of minority voters.
In response to the comparison dilemma, number crunchers have created so-called "race bridges," which use formulas that, in one way or another, apportion people who have checked multiple boxes.
The number of people who will classify themselves this way is expected to be small. Nonetheless it poses statistical problems, that when resolved, typically take away the opportunity won by multiracial people to reflect their diversity.
"You end up putting them in the same categories they had in 1990," said Jim Hosler, research director for the Hillsborough County Planning Commission. "The change has done nothing to help statisticians and demographers. It was just kind of a personal, feel-good thing."
In sum, what politics giveth, statistical analysis taketh away.
"Things are a mess in Washington," Graham said. "I think it shows how screwed up the numbers are and how they always have been."
The 'one drop' rule
The load of data coming out this month -- Florida's numbers are scheduled for release next week -- is tailored for redistricting, a process the Florida Legislature must complete by next year.
As the state grows and changes, the Legislature must adjust district boundary lines to ensure districts have roughly the same number of people in them, and that minority citizens are grouped together in districts in large enough numbers so they may have enough power to elect someone.
The Department of Justice is charged with ensuring compliance with the Voting Rights Act, which requires voting district boundary review in certain areas of the country, including Florida.
After the release of the 2000 census data, Department of Justice officials expect to get several thousand redistricting plans for review. The department has received numerous requests for guidance on how to look at the race data, and has announced it expects the race numbers to be calculated in this way:
Anybody who, on a census form, said they were white and one of the five other race categories will be put into the minority category for purposes of redistricting. So, if you say you're white and African-American, the government ignores the white part of who you are. In the eyes of the government, you are black.
The statistical resolution doesn't go over well with folks such as Graham, who is president of Project R.A.C.E., which stands for Reclassify All Children Equally.
"It really cements the "one drop' rule and it was done intentionally," said Graham of Tallahassee.
Graham is referring to a rule born of the antebellum South that classified people as black if they had as little as one drop of "black blood" in their veins -- an offensive and long-discredited notion that races had discernable blood types that corresponded to appearance and behavior.
That the counting issue has resurrected talk of the "one drop" rule speaks to the far-reaching and frequently uncomfortable nature of the discussion of race that it provokes.
The problem of categories
What starts out as a statistical problem, slides into a discussion of whether it is appropriate for the government to classify people by race, and an examination of what exactly constitutes race.
Yale University biologist Jonathan Marks expresses the opinion of most biologists and anthropologists with his contention that race has no biological reality. It is, he says, a social, cultural and political concept based on appearance. Genes vary, but not by race.
It's further complicated by the reality that racial identity in this country is not only who you think you are, but who other people think you are.
"It has always been complicated," said Debra Dickerson, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a public policy group in Washington. "But we never admitted it."
She said that some black Americans, many of them of mixed racial and ethnic background, don't want to lose power and identity by being seen as something other than black.
"The more black people there are, the madder we get to be at white people," she said. "It's the perfect crime. You can't hate white people if they're part of you."
Dickerson said the only way to get beyond ambiguity of race is to let go of such classifications -- a difficult proposition.
The viability of this country's menu of set-asides, entitlements, affirmative action and civil rights regulatory program depends upon racial classifications.
"If you don't collect that information, you have no ability to measure whether discrimination is occurring," said Linda Jacobsen, senior vice president of Claritas, a San Diego data and marketing firm.
Jacobsen, who also advises the census, said the changes in categories were a response to an evolving social perception of race. Without a doubt, she said, it makes matters more complicated.
Over time, census numbers have become a key part of so many different policy equations, that when one part is changed -- such as the race and Hispanic origin designations -- it invariably affects others.
It's a matter of trying to have the numbers serve many different purposes, said June Nogle, a University of Florida demographer. A concept as complicated as racial makeup is not well-served by a single set of numbers, however much they are needed for policy reasons, Nogle said.
"Do they actually measure the population and its diversity?" Nogle asked. "No. It wasn't designed to. Diversity is a moving target."
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