How the Census Colors Our Perception of Racial Issues

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Secretary of Commerce Don Evans discusses the initial census results

Sometimes, numbers can lie.

As the new figures from the 2000 census trickle out of Washington and government demographers exclaim over "shifting populations" and "expanding pockets of diversity," some activists and sociologists are protesting — not just the numbers themselves, but the very methodology and purpose of the decennial survey.

Some of the census findings do, in fact, show striking changes in the American landscape. For example, while non-Hispanic whites are still the majority, they make up only 69 percent of the population, versus 76 percent in 1990. And nearly 7 million Americans checked off more than one box under "race" — the first time the census allowed for multiracial identification.

Sounds reasonable, even predictable. America has always been a country in flux. But behind these seemingly innocuous figures there is controversy: What do these numbers — and their assigned values — really mean? Tukufu Zuberi, a sociology professor and demographer at the University of Pennsylvania's Population Studies Center, is also the author of the forthcoming book "Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie." Monday, Zuberi told that he sees the 2000 census results not as an accurate indicator of our country at large, but rather as a call to action — and, Zuberi hopes, a precursor to a conversation about the real meaning of race, ethnicity and political power in America. Maybe you can explain something that's confusing to a lot of people. Why do Census Bureau analysts insist on comparing so-called "Hispanics" and blacks as minority blocs? "Hispanic" doesn't have anything to do with race, so why make that parallel?

Zuberi: Well, simply put, because the Office of Management and Budget, which makes decisions like this, told the Census Bureau to make "Hispanic" a category on the form. The so-called "Hispanic" population is a creation of this political discourse. The question then becomes, why did the OMB decide to juxtapose an ethnic designation like "Hispanic" with a racial designation, like "black"? Ethnicity and race are not interchangeable categorizations.

There is this idea that people have mistakenly got that somehow the Hispanic population is like a racial group that you can compare to African Americans — but to suggest that white Cubans have the same experience as, say, Puerto Ricans is ridiculous.

Most preliminary census stories have focused on a growing multiracial population. Do these numbers indicate a real sea change in the American demographic landscape?

Zuberi: This was the first year people were able to characterize themselves as more than one race, so the results have been widely reported. But while the number of people identifying as two or more races is actually very low — about 2 percent of the entire population — the media still get very excited about race, although not to an extent that means anyone really grasps the significance of race and self-identification. We don't talk about fundamental questions: What is race? It's not biological, the human genome project proved that. Is it political? Or is it psychological?

Do you think the census questions about race are misleading?

Zuberi: I'm not sure about misleading. But they probably led to a great deal of confusion inside people's heads: How do I identify myself within these limiting categories?

The OMB has limited the conversation about diversity within the American population to a defined group of topics; they're only interested in certain categories, and those are the categories via which we are all counted. For example, you can't be African and not black, according to the Census Bureau construct. And that doesn't make sense.

Look, almost 95 percent of people who answered "other" with regard to the race question are Hispanic, while the rest of the population chose one of the traditional categories. A lot of Hispanics, in other words, are trying to find their racial space in America. And that leads to another question raised but not answered in the census: Why do these racial categories have so much significance in America? If a full 43 percent of Hispanics don't see themselves fitting into any category, what does that mean?

Commerce Secretary Don Evans' decision to use the "unadjusted" census numbers met with protest from civil rights groups and minority leaders, who contend the adjustment is necessary to make up for uncounted thousands in urban areas. Republicans defend Evans' conclusion, arguing that any adjustment would only open the numbers to error. Has there been much activism surrounding the census, either demanding a restructuring of the questionnaire or an adjustment to current numbers?

There is a lack of sophistication in pockets of America, an assumption that these numbers are produced by objective scientists. This is intimidating. For some reason, Americans assume census data is not political — but it is. Every census is mandated by Congress, and is taken for political purposes like redistricting and assigning representation. But African Americans and Native Americans should be up in arms over this year's numbers, and they should demand an adjustment because it's clear an adjustment would be in their political interest.