Census Choices

During an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" the other day, Masters golf champion Tiger Woods said he is troubled by simplistic labeling - by those who single him out as black or Asian. He once came up with a term he thought better described his multiracial makeup, "Cablinasian," a mix of Caucasian, black, American Indian, and Asian.

The US Census Bureau is struggling with the same issue. For the first time, it's considering counting people of mixed race as a separate category. Since 1977, Americans have been given four choices on forms: black, white, American Indian/Alaskan Native, or Asian/Pacific Islander.

Yet in those 20 years, immigration rates and the number of interracial marriages in the US have risen significantly. At a hearing before Congress last week to explore how the federal government measures race and ethnicity, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D) of New York accurately said, "For a multiracial couple to be asked to choose a racial category for their child flies in the face of the racial harmony their marriage represents."

Between 1960 and 1990, the number of interracial couples in this country has grown from 150,000 to more than 1.1 million, according to census figures. The children of these marriages often are put in the uncomfortable and unfair position of having to choose one part of their ancestry over another. Woods told Winfrey he felt frustrated in school when asked to check the racial box that fit him best.

But, there are some legitimate questions about the impact of adding a new category to the census in 2000. It would reduce the numbers of blacks and Hispanics recorded, imperiling minority voting districts and funds for minority aid programs, critics say. And a new category would make it more difficult to compare new statistics with those collected in the past, they add.

The purpose of the census, after all, is to provide information for business, government, and scholars that's used for the distribution of funds for education, public health, housing, job training, and programs for the poor and elderly. Would the addition of a multiracial category add any value?

To many Americans, yes. As Ramona Douglass, president of the Association of Multiethnic Americans, said, "Part of being a full American is saying who you are." Adding a new census box would allow a more accurate assessment of what this country has become. But individual identity? That's another matter. The choices on the census form don't "capture all of me," said one man of black, Asian, and American Indian heritage. He's profoundly right. An updated form might help, but even that will never capture who any of us really are.

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