Race Question on 2010 Census Raises Serious Questions


By John W. Whitehead

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
-- Martin Luther King Jr.

Has America evolved to the point where the government no longer needs to know your race? It's an interesting and timely question, given our nation's colorful and, at times, painful history when it comes to matters of race, as well as the importance placed on race in the 2010 Census.

Certainly, we have come a long way since the days of slavery and Jim Crow laws. The election of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president is a sign that America is becoming more color blind. Yet we still have a long way to go before we are able to do away with racial barriers, and it doesn't help when, instead of dispensing with race-identifying questions, the U.S. Census Bureau is requiring citizens to take a colored view of themselves.

The Census Bureau's phrasing of certain race categories on the 2010 Census is also causing offense. For example, despite the negative connotations arising from use of the word "Negro," a word historically associated with slavery and segregation, the Bureau uses the terms "black," "African-American" and "Negro" interchangeably. As 25-year-old Taryn Anthony pointed out in a recent Grio news story, "I find the word 'Negro' to be quite offensive when it comes to the census and separating and differentiating among races because of the history of the use of the word. I've yet to hear someone use it in a respectable manner, so placing it on a census seems as yet another way to set back African-Americans." Indeed, last year, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid's use of the word "Negro" when discussing President Obama's dialect caused quite a stir because of its racial undertones. Nevertheless, the Census Bureau justifies its inclusion of the word on the questionnaire on the pretext that some older African-Americans only identify themselves as Negroes.

It's not just African-Americans who are concerned. Just this week, I received an e-mail from Marc, an American citizen who is outraged that in this day and age, he is being asked by his government to classify himself as belonging to a particular race. As Marc writes:

There's no reason to use race to distinguish people. Most people are mixed race. How, for example, would President Obama answer the [Census Bureau's race] question? Is he black or white? What about Tiger Woods? Is he black or [A]sian? And what race are Tiger's kids?
The time has come to lose racial identity to end racism and start seeing ourselves as fellow humans and not to assume that you can determine anything from the color of someone's skin other than the color of their skin. I don't want to give the government information so that they can make decisions based on race.

Marc hits on two important questions: (1) How does the government define race? and (2) What does the government plan to do with this race information? Thus far, the Census Bureau's responses to these questions have been inadequate.

For example, the Census Bureau claims that the question of a person's race has been asked since the very first census in 1790. However, like many of its later counterparts, the 1790 census did not ask for the race of any specific individual. Instead, it asked for the total number of free whites and slaves within the household. In 1790, persons were also counted differently for the purpose of determining representation based on their skin color (blacks were counted as three-fifths of a person). Thankfully, that changed with the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

As for how the government defines race, it considers race to be "a self-identification data item in which respondents choose the race or races with which they most closely identify." In other words, according to the government, you are the race you choose to belong to. Such a subjective determination surely renders the race question useless until you get to what may be the Bureau's primary reason for keeping it in the questionnaire: "State governments use the data to determine congressional, state and local voting districts."

As if gerrymandering was not already bad enough, will 2010 Census data be used to carve out future congressional districts? Will African-American communities be matched with sitting African-American congressmen? Will nearby Hispanic neighborhoods not currently in the same district be lumped together in hopes of increasing Hispanic representation in Congress? If the information is being used toward drawing district boundaries, then obviously some race-related parameter or objective must be in play when drawing those district lines.

Lastly, other concerns have been raised about how the information collected by the government could be used. Specifically, concerns that Census answers might be used for racial profiling should not be lightly dismissed. Current law prohibits the release of Census Bureau data on individuals. However, that could easily change.

We have already witnessed a drastic erosion in protections for personal and private information as foreign and domestic security threats have grown over the past decade. Thus, what is to say that five years from now, the government won't present an equally compelling (in their eyes) argument for obtaining an individual's answers to the Census? Furthermore, even if other agencies of the government never gain access to an individual's specific answers, the data released by the Census Bureau can easily be used for community-based racial profiling, resulting in both programs and law enforcement efforts being targeted at certain racial populations. For those who suggest that this could not happen in America, one has only to study the history books. In 1943, the Census Bureau released the names and other information on Japanese-Americans to the War Department, which helped the government round up these Americans citizens and place them in internment camps. Many were imprisoned for the duration of World War II.

For a nation trying to step away from any lasting remnants of racism, asking people to classify themselves in terms of race and then using those answers to define boundaries for representation is a very strange way to go about reaching that goal. In fact, at a time when the nation is split along so many different lines--from politics to race to economics, should the government really continue to sow seeds of discord and segregation? As Martin Luther King Jr. urged more than 40 years ago, isn't it time to stop judging us by the color of our skin?


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