David A. Hollinger: Race, Politics, and the Census

[David A. Hollinger is a professor of history and chairman of the department at the University of California at Berkeley. His book Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (Basic Books, 1995) was recently reissued in a 10th-anniversary edition that develops the themes in this essay.]

What distinctions among people in the United States really matter? The U.S. Census Bureau provides the official answer: Americans are white, black, Asian-American, American Indian, or Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, unless they are Hispanic, in which case they can also be any of the above. The census forms include dozens of questions about age, gender, household income, and a host of other aspects of an individual's life, but the survey leads off by asking respondents to locate themselves in this "racial" system. The tabulated results for that single question on race are by far the most widely noted of the multitudinous findings of the census.

Does the census make the right distinctions? We need to be sure because the categories it uses are a touchstone for countless public and private institutions and programs. The particular results of the census are descriptive, but the categories that produce those results are prescriptive: They tell Americans how they are expected to think of themselves and of each other.

Our social scientists, historians, and political philosophers remind us constantly that the central significance of a census is not the statistics it yields, but the distinctions it draws within a national population. So it is important to get the categories right. They should match an understanding of our nation and its public policies that can be vindicated through open debate.

Yet the bulk of the public, encouraged by a remarkably uncritical news media, continues to believe that the federal census is descriptive, a body of objective facts about the nation. In an era when scholars have subjected race and ethnicity to unprecedented scrutiny, critical public assessment of the key decisions of the Census Bureau has been remarkably muted. Discussion has focused on only a few of the relevant questions, especially the status of people of mixed ancestry and whether Hispanics are a race or an ethnic group. The entire system of racial and ethnic classification employed in the federal census has not received the more deliberate and sustained public debate that it deserves. The option of checking more than one box, introduced in the 2000 census, begged entirely the question of how the boxes are labeled. The time is right: The 2010 survey will soon be upon us.

I want to argue for two basic reforms of the census categories. They may be controversial. But I believe even those who might not be persuaded by my proposals can accept my chief point: that we need a real debate about the census.

What are the issues too often ignored? How do I think the census should look in 2010, if revised in the light of recent scholarly discussions of race and ethnicity?

My first specific proposal, offered by many others before me, concerns the very concept of race. What the news media and many Americans refer to as race is at the center of American life. But the Congress of the United States has not had a major debate about it since the civil-rights era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. ...

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