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Can The US Live Without Race?

After nearly 10 years of controversy, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) determined before Census 2000 that each United States resident must be classified as a member of one or more of the following racial groups: White; Black, African-American or Negro; American Indian or Aleutian Islander; Asian; or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. For the census questionnaire if you were unsure which group you belong to you could answer "Other." However, your response eventually will be placed in one of the official categories, at least for statistical purposes.

At Queens College, where I teach, many of my immigrant students are indignant about such an arbitrary racial classification. The Greek students, who claim that the Greek language does not have a simple translation for race, consider themselves Greek, not white. Most Haitian and some Jamaican students do not consider themselves "Black, African American or Negro." Students from various countries in East, Southeast and South Asia do not understand how they are all from one specific racial group: "Asian." The much ballyhooed multiple race answers to Census 2000 amounted to very little in most locales, including New York City, as I wrote in a previous column. Despite the genetic reality, made plain by the controversy surrounding whether Jefferson fathered Sally Hemmings' children and books such as Slaves in the Family, about 99 percent marked only one racial box on Census 2000.

The Human Genome Project, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and the American Anthropological Association all cast doubt on the utility of the concept of "race." Indeed, the anthropologists' statement puts race into its historical context: "As they were constructing US society, leaders among European-Americans fabricated the cultural/behavioral characteristics associated with each 'race,' linking superior traits with Europeans and negative and inferior ones to blacks and Indians. Numerous arbitrary and fictitious beliefs about the different peoples were institutionalized and deeply embedded in American thought. Early in the 19th century the growing fields of science began to reflect the public consciousness about human differences. Differences among the 'racial' categories were projected to their greatest extreme when the argument was posed that Africans, Indians, and Europeans were separate species, with Africans the least human and closer taxonomically to apes."

As for collecting race data, the anthropologists indicate that they would be more comfortable with using ethnicity for origin data, though they acknowledge that it will take a long time to change to such a formulation. In the early 20th Century, there was little doubt about race. In 1925, when the census was reporting on the population in Detroit, it bluntly characterized the population as White, Black, Red and Yellow. The Yellow were subdivided into Chinese and Japanese. Such classifications have not b een completely retired. A 2002 voter list from Allegheny County in Pennsylvania had the same racial groups: R for Red, W for White, Y for Yellow, and B for Black.

Recent work emanating from psychology, most particularly Hernstein and Murray's The Bell Curve and J. Philippe Rushton's Race, Evolution, and Behavior revisit this early characterization. Rushton argues that races differ in intelligence and reproductive behavior, and that those differences have evolutionary origins. "Orientals" have the largest brains and highest cognitive abilities, "Negroids" have the smallest brains and strongest drive to reproduce, and "Caucasoids" are somewhere in between. He supports his claims with comparisons of IQ scores, sexual behaviors, and even genital size.

Opposition to the use of the concept of race for collecting data about origin continues to build among many groups of professional social scientists based upon its mistaken biological basis. A self-report (on the census or other surveys) or a report by an official (for schools, hospitals or other organizations) seems an odd way to collect data about supposed biological origin. The confusion of my immigrant students, the sub-classifications of Asian race and Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander race by country of origin, and the sub-classification of American Indian or Alaska Native race by enrolled or principal tribe, show that race has become very difficult to classify and interpret. The census short form's official designation of Hispanic or Latino origin collected by a different question also expects a sub-classification by country of origin, The Census, of course, collects other data on origin on the long-form, including "ancestry or ethnic origin" and actual place of birth.

Ward Connerly, whose initiative forced the end of affirmative action at the University of California, now wants to end the collection of racial information in California by the government with exceptions for medical, legal and employment and housing enforcement. At the same time, the American Sociological Association, a group of which I am a member, recently issued a "Statement on Race." It not only calls for the continuing collection of information on origin, but the continuing use of the term race, "so that scholars can document and analyze how race--as a changing social construct--shapes social ranking, access to resources, and life experiences." No where in the statement is there any recognition that "race" began life as a biological concept to be used for invidious distinction among groups. Nor do they seem to recognize that it has become a more and more complex concept to measure in the United States, while it is now conditioned by many other factors related to origin. Native-born whites may be different than most immigrant whites. The differences and similarities between immigrant and native-born blacks could prove to be very important as "influences on social ranking, access to resources, and life experiences." Many immigrant blacks, for instance, assume that their fortunes in the United States will be much different and much better than those of native-born Blacks. Understanding whether this is true would show whether racial origin or classification trumped other factors.

Plainly, much of the interest in the new census data revolves around the fate of various social groups, including those traditionally considered race groups, as well as immigrants from various locales around the globe, the Hispanic groups, the disabled, the highly educated, and others. Given the growing diversity in the United States, it seems increasingly important to understand the widely varying origin of United States residents. For this very reason, it may be time to retire the concept of race, and combine it with other information on origin, including Hispanic or Latino origin and ancestry. Reynolds Farley, a sociologist at the University of Michigan and perhaps the premier demographer following the United States Census data most particularly concerning the state of the black population, proposed a single census question to measure race, Spanish-origin and ancestry. Such an approach recognizes that answers to race, as with those other questions, really are self-identifications.

So far apparently, the collection of data on race is too controversial to become simply part of a question on origin and ethnicity, even if the responses to such a question might be more accurate than answers to the current questions. Such an approach would in no way undercut the use of such categories for affirmative action, to stop invidious group profiling, or to track the impact of racial identification or other origin on disease. Instead, it would make it possible to respond to the actual diversity that now exists in the United States. Until then, those interpreting the Census 2000 results concerning race should realize that race as a biological concept no longer exists, but rather it is simply self-identified origin, as is Hispanic or Latino, or Italian or Irish.

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981. Since 1993 he has done demographic analyses and consulted for the New York Times. He has provided expert testimony in districting and redistricting, housing discrimination, and numerous other civil rights cases in the metropolitan area and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in Topics are his alone.

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