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Census nods to new views of ethnicity

Emergence of 'multiracial' Americans leads to changes in how nation is counted

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 1999


Here's a quick quiz. According to federal statistics, does Sacramento, Calif., have:

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A) A slight majority of whites and nearly 138,000 blacks and Asians?


B) A minority of whites and 123,000 blacks and Asians?

The answer is both. And if this seems confusing, it's only the beginning of a new era of racial counting. The new counts will more accurately reflect the United States' increasing diversity, especially the rapidly growing number of biracial and multiethnic children. But they will also so blur racial and ethnic lines that judges, policymakers, and everyday citizens use as they try to draw voting districts, dole out federal block grants, and figure out who goes to which school.

No one knows how the new counting will shape the way Americans see themselves. The first step comes next year with the 2000 census.

"It's going to be a real shock - a real flowering will come out of the census - when people understand the complexity of ethnicity," says Michael Dear, director of the Southern California Studies Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "What we're trying to do is invent a new way of seeing."

The old method, still used in federal data gathering, forces people to describe their racial and ethnic background by checking a single box: black, white, Asian, and so on. (The one exception is Hispanic, a mixed group to begin with, which is typically asked as a separate question.)

The ethnic pigeonholing works for most people. But it doesn't fit the rapidly growing population of children from mixed marriages. Between 1970 and 1990, their numbers have grown from less than 500,000 to about 2 million. And their numbers are likely to skyrocket in coming decades as racial and ethnic intermarriage becomes commonplace.

That's why the federal government has begun changing its statistical methods. Next year, for the first time, the decennial census will allow people to check as many ethnic and racial categories as they want. By Jan. 1, 2003, all departments of the federal government must make the switch.

A more-complex count

Unfortunately, boosting accuracy also means a far more complex picture of what the US looks like. "It's going to be an accounting nightmare," says Dowell Myers, a demographer at USC.

Even the simple statistics look hard. For example, how do you count black-white people? Do you tally them with blacks? Do you include them in a separate category with all other multiethnic people?

Groups representing the rising multiethnic population have fought hard for the second option, arguing that people of mixed-race heritage are neither one nor the other but a separate group with its own agenda. Yet traditional minority groups, fearful their ranks will shrink, want anyone who checks their box to be included in their totals - even if they check other boxes as well.

The Census Bureau isn't clarifying matters. It plans to report both ways: One estimate will count multiethnic people in a separate category, a second will put them in whatever category they check - never mind that they're double-counted and that the totals add up to more than 100 percent. That's why the numbers for Sacramento, which participated last year in a dress rehearsal for the 2000 census, are so confusing.

Some demographers praise the new method; others detest it.

"The whole situation is untenable," argues Peter Skerry, author of a forthcoming book on the politics of the census. "It baffles me that the Census Bureau thinks it's going to get away with that."

Another challenge: If minorities no longer get counted as a single number but as a range of numbers the totals can easily be manipulated.