Many American Dilemmas: The Statistical Politics of Counting by Race and Ethnicity

By Skerry, Peter | Brookings Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Many American Dilemmas: The Statistical Politics of Counting by Race and Ethnicity


Skerry, Peter, Brookings Review


In recent years Americans have been understandably anxious that their increasingly diverse society is fragmenting along group lines and identities. Now a massive new federal government survey sheds considerable light on such concerns. And while this study offers some comforting evidence that these group identities are hardly as fixed or rigid as we typically assume, it also suggests that their very fluidity will fuel controversies over how and where to draw lines between groups.

The occasion for this survey is the federal government's reevaluation of how it collects and publishes racial and ethnic data. The current statistical regime dates from 1978, when the Office of Management and Budget issued Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 ("Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting") in an effort to standardize across departments and agencies the volumes of new data required by affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, and other race-conscious policies.

Explicitly denying any scientific or anthropological authority for its determinations, Directive 15 nevertheless established five basic categories to be used by federal agencies: white, black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaskan Native. OMB went on to stipulate that these are racial categories - except Hispanic, which was defined as an ethnic category. In other words, as is often stated in the fine print at the bottom of government documents, "Hispanics can be of any race."

In recent years, this framework has been challenged from a variety of directions. First, there have been objections to the group names - for example, that "Hispanics" should be referred to as "Latinos," or "blacks" as "African Americans." Then, there have been efforts by groups not specifically listed in Directive 15 to be explicitly designated. Thus, Arab Americans have lobbied that a separate category be established for them, while Hawaiians have argued that they are not adequately served under the Asian and Pacific Islander category and are therefore entitled to separate designation. Finally, there has been pressure from those of mixed backgrounds for a new multiracial category.

The focal point for such concerns will undoubtedly be the federal government's largest, most expensive, and most visible data-gathering effort - the decennial census. The Census Bureau, still smarting from the controversy over its undercount of Hispanics and blacks in 1990, is moving cautiously ahead with plans for the millennial census in 2000. For as will be evident shortly, the revision of ethnic and racial categories will have significant consequences not simply for how groups define themselves, but for how numerous they are.

To address such concerns, OMB established the Interagency Committee for the Review of Racial and Ethnic Standards, which then sponsored a one-time supplement (in May 1995) to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly Current Population Survey. With a sample of about 60,000 households (approximately 100,000 individuals) selected randomly without regard to racial or ethnic origin, the CPS offers a unique opportunity to see how revised racial and ethnic categories would affect the ways all Americans identify themselves. Despite its soporific title, the "CPS Supplement for Testing Methods of Collecting Racial and Ethnic Information" provides an abundance of data that will inevitably fuel the fire under America's melting pot as we approach the millennium.

Racial Self-Identification

Discussions of racial and ethnic identity typically proceed warily, often because it is unclear how individuals from the groups being discussed wish to be identified. Discussion based on the CPS supplement will have sounder - though not entirely unproblematic - footing, since all 100,000 respondents were asked how they preferred their racial or ethnic group be identified.

It turns out that Americans who trace their antecedents back to Africa do not necessarily prefer to be called "African American. …

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