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Monday, March 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Changing the way we think about race

Los Angeles Times

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Someday, when race is more negotiable - more an expression of one's mood than one's identity - historians may say it started with Census 2000.

This census, due for release as early as this week, is the first in which Americans were invited to mark one or more races, creating a total of 57 new categories with anywhere from two to six races, such as white-Asian or black-Latino-American Indian.

Experts estimate that only about 4 percent of Americans identified themselves as multiracial in 2000, but the implications are stunning. The census' formalizing of multiple-race answers undermines more than 200 years of law and tradition and explodes the most basic notion of race: that there are distinct bio-cultural groups of human beings.

The ensuing debate could overshadow the census' traditional function of establishing the numbers upon which political reapportionment, federal revenue allotments and mass marketing are based.

"Once you have opened up the census in this revolutionary fashion, there's really no natural limit, no natural boundaries between the races," said Kenneth Prewitt, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau until he stepped down earlier this year.

The multiracial movement in America has been growing for years, reflecting vast demographic shifts over the past four decades that belied traditional racial categories. In the 1990 census, the third-fastest-growing category was "other," with 2 million people. Those statistics galvanized multiracial lobbying efforts.

"It just became impossible to deny that people have origins in more than one race," social historian Joel Perlmann said.

But the multiple-race census was opposed by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Japanese American Citizens League, which have argued that the destabilization of racial categories could weaken civil-rights enforcement efforts.

The effects of race

Race is a social construct, but it has real economic, political and social effects. Multiple-race census data seem likely to make it harder to quantify those effects. Beyond the census, the data are about to filter into many other social-policy arenas.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has instructed more than 60 federal agencies to incorporate multiple-race information by 2003.

Policy-makers say this new way of collecting racial information will gradually trickle down from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to state governments, city agencies and even individual schools, police stations and private businesses.

Some researchers at federal agencies, universities and think tanks throughout the United States say multiracial data collection has launched the nation into uncharted regions where politics, identity, law and culture will collide with confusing effects.

"We're definitely opening up a whole set of new issues, and I'm not sure where it's going to go," Brookings Institution researcher Peter Skerry said. "We may not just have battles between races, but battles about race itself."

Even the pure statistical questions will be daunting. For example, federal statisticians tracking the prevalence of liver disease among American Indian communities will have single-race data until 1990. Then they will have to make sense of data from 2000, in which significant numbers of American Indians will check an additional race.

The Office of Management and Budget has outlined several tactics for its agencies to make sense of this.

They include assigning multiple-race responses to single-race categories and recording multiracial people as racial fractions (A black and Asian woman might be counted as one-half of a black person and one-half of an Asian person.). These statistical strategies will vary widely, depending on the agency and the source of the data.

If the numbers are calculated imprecisely - something many demographers say is inevitable with multiracial data - it could create illusory problems or obscure real challenges.

What about discrimination?

Foremost on the minds of many sociologists and civil-rights activists is the way multiracial data will complicate anti-discrimination monitoring and enforcement, the primary purpose of federal data on race.

School desegregation plans and regulatory programs for housing, employment, health and the environment all use racial statistics to some degree. Right now, federal civil-rights law recognizes only six mutually exclusive racial and ethnic categories: "American Indian or Alaska Native," "Asian," "Black or African American," "Hispanic or Latino," "Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander" and "White." So how will someone who is black and white, or Asian and American Indian, or Asian and white and Native American and Pacific Islander be collapsed into the pertinent single-race categories?

It depends.

Multiracial people who indicate they are white and something else will generally be "allocated to the minority race," according to guidance from the Office of Management and Budget. When responses combine two or more minority races, the federal standards state that the situation will be resolved on a case-by-case basis.

If a mixed-race person makes a discrimination complaint, that person will be allocated to the race he or she thinks the discrimination was based on. For example, if a man who is black and Asian American believed he was denied a job at a grocery store because the manager was prejudiced against black people, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could list that individual as black, regardless of his Asian-American heritage.

Matt Kelley, the founder of a Seattle-based magazine about interracial issues, says the notion of the government interpreting multiracial categories in civil-rights enforcement subverts the principle of multiculturalism.

"All of a sudden to finally be given the opportunity to choose more than one race and then seemingly have that taken away seems a little suspect," said Kelley, who is Korean American and white. "Besides, it would be wrong to say that I would only be discriminated against because I am Korean or Asian-American. I used to bus tables, and people used to think I was Mexican.

"The reality is that I might be discriminated against because someone thinks I am Native American or Latino or Asian American," said Kelley, who has been taken for all three races. "And sometimes people are discriminating against others just because they are multiracial - not because they are perceived to be one thing or another."

Things get even more complicated if an enforcement action requires a statistical sample.

"If you're talking about racial profiling in terms of census data," said former census director Prewitt, "and you want to know how many blacks were picked up driving in New Jersey compared to the total black population of New Jersey, we're going to be arguing about who is and isn't black."

Reapportionment

One of the hottest flash points for multiracial data may be the issue of voting rights and reapportionment.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits the drawing of voting districts to purposefully split or dilute minorities' votes.

In the past, racial statistics collected by the census and other agencies were used to determine voting-rights violations. But now it will become trickier. Take a county supervisor's district where 40 percent of residents marked black as their only race and an additional 15 percent marked black plus another race. Is this a majority black district? Some experts predict this question will be among the first census issues to reach the Supreme Court.

The multiracial guidelines for federal agencies are only "provisional" and could change depending on what the census data show.

Public hearings on the guidelines are continuing and new studies by the Census Bureau, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health are aimed at determining why census respondents chose the races they did, and whether the racial allocation standards could be improved.

Also still undecided is how the government will deal with multiracial data when it comes to eligibility for targeted programs, such as the Small Business Administration's loans for minority businesses.

"This is still an evolving piece of guidance," said Katherine K. Wallman, chief statistician of the Office of Management and Budget.

"In fact, my copy of the standards is still in a loose-leaf notebook."

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