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Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Demographics
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"Demography" is the study of human populations, using statistics to describe conditions of life. Demographers consider a range of information about the size and density of populations, the ages of their members, and how populations change. Births, deaths, disease, marriages, divorces, immigration, economic standing, occupation, race, ethnic and country of origin all are subjects for the demographer.
The Context
New York City is unique and fascinating demographically. Recently, it has had large numbers of foreign immigrants arriving, many long-standing residents leaving, an increase in the gap between the rich and the poor, and a rise in the black middle class. It is a city of unique ethnic and racial diversity; it has a large older population. It was the home of many immigrants during the turn of the 20th Century. It was a destination for many African Americans from the Southern United States. Many residents of the City's suburbs fled New York City starting after World War II. In some areas of the city there is rapid growth fueled by immigrants and their children. Some areas are undergoing racial and ethnic transition; others are gentrifying. These trends are important for understanding the Ccty and its evolution.
The Reporter
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.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Demographics.

by Andrew Beveridge

Redefining Race

(Feb '01) How many New Yorkers consider themselves multiracial? When the Census Bureau releases the first detailed results from Census 2000 in March we will begin to find out. "It's one of the most exciting demographic dramas in world history," said Kenneth Prewitt, who stepped down as the head of the Census Bureau earlier this month with the change in presidential administrations. Prewitt thinks that Census 2000 will go down in history as the event that began to redefine race in American society.

The revolution is the result of a small change in the wording of one question. In the 1990 Census, a list of racial categories was preceded by instructions that read: "Fill ONE circle for the race that the person considers himself/herself to be." In 2000, the instructions read: "Mark ONE OR MORE races to indicate what this person considers himself/herself to be."

The notion that people belong to one and only one race was thus no longer "official." Of course scholars, such as the members of the American Anthropological Association, have long recoiled from the very notion of race, viewing it as an antiquated concept. But with the government weighing in, it is no longer a philosophical conversation, but a decision that will have practical consequences.

It will certainly make redistricting more complex. Last census there were five basic racial categories This time there will be 126, representing all the various permutations and combinations of races. It will also complicate such previously simple tasks as computing the median income for blacks or whites, or determining a city's racial composition. (In 1999, according to Census estimates, New York City, which had 7.4 million inhabitants, was 57.9 percent white, 31.6 percent black or African American, 0.5 percent Native American, and 10 percent Asian American or Pacific islander. About 28.1 percent were Hispanic.) The government is now making efforts to aggregate those claiming two or more races to keep some comparability with the earlier system, and civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, have recommended that "blacks" only mark one race on their census forms

Yet, make no mistake about it, race as we knew it is no longer tallied in the United States. We can only guess at the ramifications. There is a parallel from 1980, when the Census Bureau replaced a question asking the country of origin of the person's parents with a question about the person's "ancestry." What happened as a result was summed up in the wry title of an article by Michael Hout and Joshua Goldstein published in the American Sociological Review: "How 4.5 Million Irish Immigrants Became 40 Million Irish Americans." We are, in other words, what we say we are, and we are likely to say a lot. Beginning as a biological concept, race has evolved into a question of self-identity and self-identification within a social and political context.

To say that a confusing mix of racial categories is completely new, though, is to show an ignorance of American history. A Congressional Commission in 1911 adopted the view that the world consisted of hundreds of separate races, such as Norwegian, Swedish and French. At the time, the U.S. Census itself classified virtually all immigrants from Europe simply as "white." However, going back at least to 1850, the government grappled with the notion of the multi-racial black and white. In 1890, the Census Bureau instructed its enumerators: "Be particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons. The word 'black' should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; 'mulatto,' those persons who have from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; 'quadroon,' those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and 'octoroon,' those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood."

By 1920, the Bureau had simplified its definitions in its instructors to its enumerators: "the term "black" (B) includes all Negroes of full blood, while the term "mulatto" (Mu) includes all Negroes having some proportion of white blood."

Starting in 1930, people in the United States could only officially be of one race. Indeed, the 1930 instructions nicely define the so-called "one drop" rule, to wit: "A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood. Both black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction."

The Bureau worked hard over the next 60 years to get it right. In 1940: "For any mixture of white and nonwhite, use the race of the non-white parent. If both parents are non-white, use the race of the father, except any mixture of Negro and Indian are to be returned as Negro." In 1950: "Use the race of the non-white parent or the race of the father if both parents are non-white." In 1960 and 1970: "Use the race of the father. If the father's race can not be determined, use the first race listed by the person." In 1980 and 1990: "Use the race of the mother. If the mother's race can not be determined, use the first race listed by the person."

So now that that is all thrown out, how many New Yorkers are likely to have reported that they are of more than one race? We can make an estimate by looking at previous surveys, and the so-called Census Dress Rehearsal in 1998 in other parts of the country (in which anywhere from five to 11 percent of a given population chose two or more races). We will discover that somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 New Yorkers have marked themselves as being of more than one race.

Five Sites For Beginners:

  • US Census Bureau - Hands-down candidate for the richest source of post-1990 population data for NYC. Here you will find annual updates detailing age and sex, race and Hispanic origin, as well as births, deaths, net domestic migration and net international migration. Excellent special feature: county-by-county estimates of the below poverty level population. Indispensable and superb.
  • American FactFinder - Also courtesy of the US Census Bureau. Features data on population and housing, industry and business as well as a searchable database on any other demographic information you could possibly want. Available by state, metro or urbanized area. Maps too!
  • US/NYS Departments of Labor - Another exemplary source is the Local Area Unemployment Statistics unit of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Each month the Bureau, in a joint undertaking with the State, provides county by county estimates of the employment status of the working age population.
  • U.S. Commerce Department - A comprehensive handle on where and how New Yorkers earn their livings. Also features information on Big Apple employers, salaries, industries and their revenues. Especially recommended is a database maintained as part of Commerce's Regional Accounts.
  • New York Metropolitan Transportation Council - One of the more ambitious on-line undertakings in making regional and city statistical data. Contains data on population, employment and income, to name a few. Not always easy to use, but well worth the effort.

Other Recommendations:

  • New York City Department of Health -- Though the website of New York City's Department of Health is utterly confusing, their annual publication, "Summary of Vital Statistics for New York" is indispensable for would be students of population dynamics. And it's free. Call the Press Office at 212-788-5290 and ask for the Office of Vital Statistics and Epidemeology. Persevere.
  • New York City Department of City Planning - One would think that the DCP would have put its population data base on-line in a user-friendly way. But no. Go figure. It's still worth looking at their website to see the lineup of potential sources and types of population and economic information.
  • New York City's Housing and Vacancy Survey - Every three years or so the US Census Bureau provides New York City with a census-type survey of the city's households. Mandated by the rent regulation law, it contains much that is of interest to those concerned with social and economic change at the borough and neighborhood level. A compact disc containing the microdata files for the 1991, 1993 and 1996 surveys can be purchased from the Census Bureau. The survey for 1999 will be available for analysts by 2000, scooping the decennial Census.

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