STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: Race and the Census

Friday, February 22, 2002

Should the U.S. Census stop collecting racial and ethnic data? The 2000 census asked Americans to identify themselves according to 126 possible racial and ethnic categories, up from just 5 categories in 1990. Movements are now afoot to add even more racial categories to the 2010 census. Does the collection of all these data stand in the way of the creation of a truly color-blind society? Should we drop questions of race from the census and other government forms? Or are these data critical tools in the ongoing fight to end inequality and discrimination?

Recorded on Friday, February 22, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, is it time to take race out of the box?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the United States Census and race. In 1990, the census asked Americans to identify themselves according to five racial categories. In the year 2000, the census asked us to identify ourselves according to one hundred and twenty-six categories. Here's a sample census form. Is Person Number One Asian, Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, other Asian, on and on and on? Is the collection of all this data hindering us from creating a truly equitable, a truly color blind society or is the collection of all this data crucial to the continuing fight against discrimination.

Joining us today, two guests. Ramona Douglass is a member of the Census Advisory Committee. Ward Connerly is President of the American Civil Rights Coalition.

Title: Census and Sensibility

Peter Robinson: In the 2000 census Americans were asked to identify themselves by race and ethnicity. The census form permitted us Americans to check boxes indicating membership in one of six single races, fifteen possible combinations of two races, twenty combinations of three, fifteen of four, six of five and one grand mix that read as follows: "white, black, Asian, American Indian or Alaska native, native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander or some other race." That gave Americans a total number of choices of a hundred and twenty-six from which to choose. Is that too many, not enough or just about right? Ramona?

Ramona E. Douglass: It varies.

Peter Robinson: Well, let's put it this way. For the 2010 census, would you like to see more categories?

Ramona E. Douglass: I would like to see the point that we wouldn't need to have racial categories at all.

Peter Robinson: Zero categories.

Ramona E. Douglass: I would like to see that happen.

Peter Robinson: Hmmm, that sounds like a qualified answer. Ward?

Ward Connerly: I agree with her. I think that we need to reach the point where the census doesn't even ask you about race.

Peter Robinson: All right. Now let's begin with an obvious but very tricky question. What is race in the first place? You have written, Ward Connerly, I'm quoting you, that "Race is a social construct conjured up by politicians and social activists." Explain yourself.

Ward Connerly: It's a pretty good quote.

Peter Robinson: Nicely written. Explain yourself.

Ward Connerly: Contrary to what most of us seem to believe, race is not some biological thing. I spent a long time last week meeting with some anthropologists and geneticists and they laugh at the notion that there is a black race and a white race and all of that. This is a political phenomenon essentially that's been used to divide people, to segregate people and to engage in all other kinds of societal mischief. And I think that the more people are aware of the fact that this purity of races is kind of like the Nuremberg laws and is something that America should get away from.

Peter Robinson: But you don't mean to suggest that it's entirely a social construct. Say if we know sickle cell anemia, the incidence is higher among African Americans. So there's a biological basis of some kind of race.

Ward Connerly: I'm not so sure about that.

Ramona E. Douglass: Peter, that's a misnomer.

Ward Connerly: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: That's incorrect as well?

Ramona E. Douglass: Exactly. You can be Italian. You can be Greek. You can be any Mediterranean; you can be Sephardic Jewish and have the possibility of sickle cell anemia.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So it's linked to a very large region, a very large genetic pool that crosses over what we would typically think of as races. Okay. Now you're going to accept that though that race is a purely social and political construct?

Ramona E. Douglass: It's the conversation that we have in the public domain that it's a social construct. But there are some medical bases for distinguishing racial and ethnic differences.

Peter Robinson: Well okay. Now we're beginning to come to the point because medical stuff is biological.

Ramona E. Douglass: Correct.

Peter Robinson: I mean, you're talking about a biological basis actually. Now you are on the Census…

Ramona E. Douglass: The Decennial Census Advisory Committee in Washington.

Peter Robinson: Okay. And so you had something to do with those a hundred and twenty-six combinations that we were all asked to choose from.

Ramona E. Douglass: The Association of Multi Ethnic Americans is the organization that I represented. And if we had had our way, I don't know if we would have had that many combinations but the reality was we felt that the categories that were available were not representing the face of America today.

Peter Robinson: And the categories that were available back in 1990, the last census, were six as I recall, just six racial choices? And you prefer a hundred and twenty-six?

Ramona E. Douglass: I would prefer that to a continuum of saying you fit in one box or more. The way you phrased the question doesn't quite get to the point.

Peter Robinson: All right. Go ahead. Rephrase it for me. I'm happy to have you do that.

Ramona E. Douglass: The question should be is there anybody in America that fits into one racial category or are we becoming such a blend as a nation that one race and saying just check one box is sufficient to distinguish who we are?

Peter Robinson: Okay. So let me frame it up this way. You just nodded when she said something a moment ago, which is I thought I caught you nodding when she said she preferred a hundred and twenty-six categories to just six. You're with that? Because it captures greater diversity?

Ward Connerly: I'm with that but only for probably Machiavellian reasons and that is to show the idiocy of the classifications altogether. If as you can do in Milwaukee which is to change your race three times a year for purposes of going to school, and if we're going to have a hundred and twenty-six, then all of that just serves to dismantle the concept of race.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now you both said at the beginning, I'm trying awfully hard--this argument so far is proving surprisingly slippery to me--I'm trying awfully hard to tee up the differences between you. You both said you want to get to the point where there's no question--nobody cares about race. You would have liked to get to that point this time around.

Ward Connerly: With the last census.

Peter Robinson: Just eliminate all those categories altogether.

Ward Connerly: Yeah, do away with them altogether.

Peter Robinson: It's no business of the government to be collecting that kind of data…

Ward Connerly: That's right.

Peter Robinson: …any more than it's the business of the government to be collecting data on height or ability in tennis or swimming or…

Ward Connerly: Religion, political affiliation…

Peter Robinson: …any of that?

Ward Connerly: …sexual orientation.

Peter Robinson: Okay, but you say we've got to have them at least for now?

Ramona E. Douglass: I believe in a utopia, in a society in which there weren't any reasons why we distinguish race in the first place, that would be ideal and I agree with Ward that I would like to get to the point where that's the case. But there are issues in America today that make that unrealistic and actually play into the hands of the very people who discriminate.

Peter Robinson: Okay, now…

Peter Robinson: Just what motivates the collection of racial data on the census in the first place?

Title: Don't Box Me In

Peter Robinson: Now let me quote, we were just talking about anthropologists, here the anthropologist, Sherwood Washburn, "Since races are open systems," he's talking as an anthropologist, "the number of races will depend on the purpose of the classification. I think we should require people who propose a classification of races," I am looking at one, "to state in the first place why they wish to divide the human species." Why do you want those boxes on the census form? What good do they do?

Ramona E. Douglass: As I stated, I don't want any of it ultimately.

Peter Robinson: Yes I know but you said in a utopia. Right now you want…

Ramona E. Douglass: Right but right now in America today there are issues involving medical concerns that contrary to Ward's belief that we don't need it, in fact, we are misdiagnosing a large number of people, not just multi racial people, which is the community that I represent, but African Americans and other people who look like a particular race. But in reality they have ethnic mixtures or racial blends that represent various diseases that are not being diagnosed properly.

Peter Robinson: Okay now I tried to open with an example of that, with sickle cell anemia and you were the one who shot that down. Give me some examples of…

Ramona E. Douglass: Tay-Sach's Syndrome. It's a recessive…

Peter Robinson: It's race specific? It correlates with those hundred and twenty-six boxes?

Ramona E. Douglass: It correlates with somebody of Sephardic Jewish or Jewish origin and if you have a mixed race child whose mother has Tay-Sach recessive and you assume when you look at that child it's simply black, then you're not even going to test for something that could affect their life or the life of future generations.

Peter Robinson: What do you make of that argument? Medical reasons? Let me tell you that the American Medical Association was one of the organizations that endorsed those one hundred and twenty-six boxes on the 2000 census. You have doctors saying forgive us Mr. Connerly but this is a public health issue, we need the information.

Ward Connerly: Well I think this was a compromise. I think it was a political compromise, fashioned between the racialists on the one hand, the NAACP, and others that want to preserve forever…

Peter Robinson: Stop action. You've got to explain what you mean by calling the NAACP…

Ward Connerly: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People…

Peter Robinson: And you called them Racialists?

Ward Connerly: Racialists.

Peter Robinson: Okay, explain that.

Ward Connerly: Those are people that believe in the concept of race. They believe that there are effectively biological races, pure races. They will never give up that view. I've just become a pessimist in that regard. They will never give up that view. For them…

Peter Robinson: Can I just ask why you're using the word racialist to distinguish it from racist, racialists at least mean well, is that the idea of using that term?

Ward Connerly: Sometimes they do. I think that they're not insisting on the system of race to necessarily harm people but they're insisting on the concept of race as a means of classification. And they believe in the concept of race.

Peter Robinson: That's ridiculous.

Ward Connerly: I think it's ridiculous.

Peter Robinson: But what about this medical question though?

Ward Connerly: I'm willing to concede that…

Peter Robinson: There may be something to it?

Ward Connerly: I'm willing to concede that the jury is out on whether there is a biological justification for all of this or not. I'm willing to concede that.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Ward Connerly: That still doesn't explain why government agencies, the University of California, the State of California, the City of Palo Alto, needs that information and that is precisely why the initiative I have proposed for the State of California, the Racial Privacy Initiative, has an exemption for medical research and medical treatment. But everything else…

Peter Robinson: Go ahead and explain your initiative.

Ward Connerly: The initiative says that the state, small "s", meaning the Mosquito Abatement District, the State of California, the University of California…

Peter Robinson: What we think of as government entities?

Ward Connerly: What you think of as government…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Ward Connerly: …shall not classify and sort its citizens on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, or national origin.

Peter Robinson: What do you make of that?

Ramona E. Douglass: My concern and I know that the intention is positive but do you believe that there is discrimination still in the United States based on race and ethnicity?

Ward Connerly: Ramona, I certainly believe there is. It's practiced by whites, it's practiced by blacks, it's practiced by Asians, it's practiced by everyone.

Ramona E. Douglass: Okay.

Ward Connerly: In the State of California, it is against the constitution to discriminate or give preferential treatment. We also exempt, by the way, the State Department of Fair Employment and Housing…

Peter Robinson: In your ballot initiative?

Ward Connerly: In this initiative. …which allows all claims for discrimination to still be filed. If we waited until all discrimination has ended in this nation, we will never get to the point where you and I, I think, really want to be and that's to get the government out of the race classification business. So we have to start someplace.

Ramona E. Douglass: Well I wanted to have a clarification on the issues of discrimination because our biggest concern, my organization, the Association of Multi Ethnic Americans is that in conjunction with other groups, in collaboration with organizations that are looking to have discrimination end, we want to see a society that becomes raceless. But right now we're not there. And there are issues that need to be addressed.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Again different…

Peter Robinson: All right. Let's explore how or whether the ethnic data collected by the census can help address the problem of discrimination.

Title: Running the Numbers

Peter Robinson: You've conceded there may be medical reasons--the data may be of some use, maybe...

Ward Connerly: I'm conceding that the scientists are not…

Peter Robinson: There's no clear consensus on it?

Ward Connerly: There's no clear consensus on it.

Peter Robinson: Okay. But you concede maybe. Nevertheless, you say whatever use that data may be put to, it still does more harm than good for the government of the United States to be in the business of classifying people according to race and ethnicity. Right?

Ward Connerly: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now do you also then say, we've just heard you grant, of course, that there is still discrimination based on skin color, race ethnicity, in the country and do you grant that the gathering of this data is useful in combating that discrimination or would you argue that it's useless? I mean you're making an exemption for one state agency here.

Ward Connerly: I think it may have some use but often it is also very misleading to say that there are X number of these working for this department and not enough of those does not mean that there's discrimination.

Peter Robinson: Okay so suppose I'm--say the Voting Rights Act of 1965, now we know that the Justice Department, one way they monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act is they know where there are large populations of minorities, of course, they look at African American populations in the South and they'll take--they'll look at polling data and so forth and see if those large populations are voting in some relationship to the population. You take away their ability to know where there are large minority populations and you undermine their ability to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Wouldn't that be terrible?

Ward Connerly: I think you can accomplish the same objective by looking at neighborhoods. You can look at census tracks to see what the voting patterns are in those census tracks, not necessarily on the basis of race. Is this neighborhood, are people voting in this neighborhood? Is that neighborhood being shut out? You can accomplish the same objective.

Peter Robinson: Very nice. You got to that corner before I did. Okay. That sounds--all right.

Ramona E. Douglass: It sounds good but let's say you're dealing with multi racial people because that's the area that I'm concerned about and there is an assumption being made in America that all minorities or a particular minority votes the same way. So I don't know if we agree on this or disagree on this but when it comes to voting rights and determining whether or not a particular voting block is being acknowledged, we've been invisible for a long, long time. We weren't even allowed to be called mixed race or multi racial. And my question is why would I want to give up the right to first be acknowledged when we haven't been acknowledged. I think that not just the government is identifying people racially but we as individuals are.

Ward Connerly: The thing that I really fear is that the way Ramona wants to go maybe and that's to use a transitional stage here of giving "multi racial or multi ethnic people" their place in the sun and then we'll move on, we could end up getting a hundred and twenty-six categories of multi racial, multi ethnic people because everyone within that is not the same. They're going to be Asian and white, they're going to be black and Asian, they're going to be Latino and they're going to be all these different…

Peter Robinson: Okay so…

Ramona E. Douglass: But the difference is is there's statistical limit on what they will use and if it's under a certain percentage, then it's all lumped together as one or more races. There is a limit and they've already established what that limit is.

Peter Robinson: Ward, here's what I think…

Peter Robinson: Let me try just one more time. When the government collects racial and ethnic data, just what good or harm is it doing?

Title: Marks of Distinction

Peter Robinson: You could say that this blossoming of racial categories from a hundred and twenty-six in this census to who knows how many next census, it's just silly. It'll collapse of its own weight. But that isn't good enough for you because you believe, I think, that racial distinctions are in and of themselves invidious.

Ward Connerly: Yes.

Peter Robinson: They're wrong. There's a moral argument there. Is that right?

Ward Connerly: They're divisive. As I listen to what Ramona is saying, I become terrified almost because now we're creating a whole new group that will insist on the same kind of protections as the six groups that we've blossomed into sixty-three into a hundred and twenty-six.

Ramona E. Douglass: Excuse me. You're not creating anything. We exist.

Ward Connerly: I know that.

Ramona E. Douglass: No, no, but what I'm saying is to make it clear multi racial people have existed. We've had the right to only check one box in the past, which didn't identify the communities that are growing up.

Peter Robinson: What does it do for you to check a box?

Ramona E. Douglass: What it does it's one when you're dealing with schools and school needs, if you're not able to distinguish what a school needs in terms of its diversity, in terms of books on curricula, etc., you're not distinguishing what those communities represent, then there're going to be dollars that are not going to be showing up in those communities or courses that won't be showing up in those communities.

Peter Robinson: Okay. I mean I can understand the statement, look the federal government has gone a long way down this road and a lot of federal dollars are tied to questions of race and ethnicity…

Ramona E. Douglass: Yes, they are.

Peter Robinson: …and as long as they're giving it out that way, I want to sign up and be recognized. I can understand that argument but I think Ward's argument--just shut me up at some point if you'd like to, if I'm misstating this, all right--I think Ward's argument is the federal government shouldn't be allocating dollars like that in the first place. Would you go for that? Do you feel the urge to just wipe these things away and make sure that the federal government doesn't allocate dollars that way?

Ramona E. Douglass: I would like to know how would we have social and economic justice in this country if we suddenly said race doesn't matter. If the people who were in power acted as if race didn't matter then I would say, absolutely. I've got better things to do with my time. I don't spend my day worrying about what box I've checked.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so your point then, I guess, is that this society is such that without a number of protections, people of clear minority races but also multi racial people are going to be in for discrimination, prejud--if you give up…

Ramona E. Douglass: Overlooked.

Peter Robinson: Overlooked.

Ramona E. Douglass: They don't even have to be active.

Peter Robinson: And that's the kind of society we're in. I mean it sounds to me as though you were talking about being fearful a moment ago. Ramona is fearful of…

Ramona E. Douglass: I'm more terrified.

Peter Robinson: …the other way around. So how do you answer that?

Ward Connerly: Well there's one thing I don't quite understand in Ramona's scheme of things here. Are you saying that we should have one category, multi ethnic category?

Ramona E. Douglass: No, we have people who checked more than one box. There were some in our community that wanted one category called multi racial but without being able to distinguish what that is, that's no better than another.

Ward Connerly: So you're saying that we would have, in effect, a composite of many different multi ethnic…

Ramona E. Douglass: We have that now. That's what the 2000 census allowed.

Ward Connerly: Okay so now how do we aggregate that information into useful patterns? Is a light-skinned, straight-haired…

Ramona E. Douglass: They don't do that.

Ward Connerly: You're saying that there's relevance to the data.

Ramona E. Douglass: Yes.

Ward Connerly: How do we aggregate that data so that it has usefulness?

Ramona E. Douglass: Well there are four main check one or more boxes that have been found in this last census. Without having the information in front of me, white and American Indian is one, white and Asian is one, white and black is one and then there's one other. Those are the four largest areas.

Peter Robinson: I can actually answer Ward's question.

Ramona E. Douglass: Yes.

Peter Robinson: I think I can answer Ward's question. Under rules promulgated by the Clinton Administration for the purposes of set-aside programs and all the other various forms of federal programs that are allocated on the basis of race and ethnicity, people who check more than one kind of box are for those purposes, in effect, counted as a member of the least privileged of all those boxes.

Ward Connerly: The one-drop rule basically.

Peter Robinson: You've got it. So that's my point that the old racist system, the old one-drop rule whereby if a person had one drop of black blood in his veins, he was considered black or African American. And now under this system that you favor, we have the Government of the United States promulgating, in effect, a one-drop rule.

Ramona E. Douglass: And we have fought that. When we said yes to check more than one box, behind the scenes to be quite honest with you, there were groups of minority Civil Rights workers who were terribly, terribly concerned that we would, in effect, dilute their numbers or their ability to have the government work for them. We in the Association of Multi Ethnic Americans, we simply wanted the ability to distinguish who we were for medical issues and for school issues for the right for every parent to define their child. Now the government got pressure politically from some of the traditional racial organizations saying, uh uh, you've got to protect us better than this. We need this, this and this. It is politics where that's concerned.

Peter Robinson: Let me read you a little…

Peter Robinson: Of course, Ward Connerly hasn't been the only one to speak out against distinctions based on race, just listen to a few of these quotations.

Title: American Dreamers

Peter Robinson: Chief Justice John Marshall Harlan, 1896, "Our Constitution is color blind." Thurgood Marshall arguing a case on behalf of the NAACP in 1949, "Classifications and distinctions based on race or color have no moral or legal validity in our society." Not someday but now have no moral or legal validity in our society. Last one, President John F. Kennedy in 1963, "Race has no place in American life or law." John Marshall Harlan, Thurgood Marshall, John F. Kennedy, they're all mistaken. Is that your position?

Ramona E. Douglass: I think if you simplify…

Peter Robinson: They're either wrong or they're utopian.

Ramona E. Douglass: I think that they're utopian.

Peter Robinson: But these guys are practical--Chief Justice, Thurgood Marshall, John Kennedy is a practical politician.

Ramona E. Douglass: They're human beings and as human beings, they are flawed in the sense that that's a great concept. Show me in reality today. I'm a practical person. I'm a grass roots advocate.

Peter Robinson: Thurgood Marshall and John Kennedy were dreamers and romantics on this matter?

Ward Connerly: No, they were people who were very much involved in trying to lead this nation from a situation in which black people were oppressed, ignored, ill treated and they were saying we have to get rid of this. We have to get rid of this system of division and we have to take race out of the equation. They were right and we're never going to get to the reality that they saw as long as we accept the notion that race has relevance. We're just not going to get there.

Peter Robinson: Ward, as we've heard these racial statistics are used for a host of purposes enforcing Civil Rights legislation, federal funding decisions, congressional redistricting, on and on. But the purpose that probably affects most Americans most directly is affirmative action.

Ward Connerly: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And the argument would be you a well-known opponent of affirmative action don't want any racial classifications at all to bring affirmative action to a grinding halt.

Ward Connerly: I want to bring preferences to a grinding halt right now. Yes.

Peter Robinson: Period. You plead guilty.

Ward Connerly: Yes, yes. I plead guilty of that. Yeah. I want to end preferences on the basis of race. I want to end the presumption that all black people are somehow disadvantaged and that their futures are contingent upon what other good people will give them. Yes, I plead guilty to that.

Peter Robinson: Ramona?

Ramona E. Douglass: I think that's a slippery slope. I don't necessarily disagree that it is assumption of infan--making a race infantile by assuming that the only way a black person or a minority person can get ahead is to have preferential treatment but I think affirmative action is not just "preferential treatment." There's a distinction between preferential treatment and quotas and allowing people, not just blacks and other minorities but women to have a possibility of getting a job that normally they wouldn't have an opening for or they would be overlooked.

Peter Robinson: It's television alas so we have to bring it to a close. We know Ward's position. He wants to abolish these racial distinctions right now. You have said sometime in the future, my question is do you see things--and then you've used the word utopia. The question is ten years from now, twenty-five years from now, fifty years from now, do you see in prospect an America in which you yourself would be quite happy to eliminate all racial categories?

Ramona E. Douglass: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: How soon?

Ramona E. Douglass: I don't think you can put a crystal ball--it depends on our society, how our society treats minorities, women and other…

Peter Robinson: But you think it's moving in that direction?

Ramona E. Douglass: I think sometimes and other times I see what we do with racial profiling that we're worse off than we were.

Peter Robinson: You see what I'm trying to get is a question of practical politics here. Is it purely a theoretical possibility, something you'd like to see happen or do you think it will happen say in your lifetime?

Ramona E. Douglass: Honestly, I don't think it'll happen in my life.

Peter Robinson: Okay, final question. In 2000, we were all asked to describe ourselves according to a hundred and twenty-six combinations of race and ethnicity. Next census, 2010, how many boxes--we know you think there should be none but you're a practical politician too, how many boxes do you think there will be by then?

Ward Connerly: Hundred and twenty-six.

Peter Robinson: Just--it's going to stay that--you think so too?

Ramona E. Douglass: Pretty much.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Ramona, Ward, thank you very much.

Ward Connerly: Thank you.

Ramona E. Douglass: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.