Room For Debate: The ‘Two or More Races’ Dilemma

Room For Debate: The ‘Two or More Races’ Dilemma

The New York Times

In Room for Debate, The New York Times invites knowledgeable outside contributors to discuss news events and other timely issues.


An article in a Times series on the growing mixed-race population in the United States describes a debate over new Education Department rules for how schools from kindergarten through college count students by race and ethnicity. Students of mixed parentage who choose more than one race will be placed in a “two or more races” category.

But those identifying themselves as Hispanic will be reported only as Hispanic, regardless of their race. Some civil rights leaders and educators say that these new classifications will complicate efforts to track academic inequities and represent a step backward in addressing them.

Do the new federal requirements make sense? What are the possible pitfalls?


“Why Race Still Matters”
Anthony P. Carnevale, Research Professor and Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce
Georgetown University

“‘Check One’ Didn’t Work”
Susan Graham, Executive Director
Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally)

“Identity and Demography”
Lani Guinier, Bennett Boskey Professor of Law
Harvard Law School

“The New Color Wheel”
Eric Liu
Author of The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (1998)

“Racism and the Multiracial Label”
Rainier Spencer, Director and Professor of Afro-American Studies; Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Author of Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix (2011)

“Take the Politics Out of Race”
Shelby Steele, Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow
Hoover Institution

“Race, Poverty and Educational Equity”
Gerald Torres, Professor of Law
University of Texas, Austin

…The change endangers the accurate monitoring of civil rights compliance in education. Despite the important gains of the civil rights movement, much discrimination still exists, albeit in less overt forms. Civil rights compliance monitoring—the use of racial statistics to uncover suspicious patterns in education, housing, employment, etc.—is our very best means of detecting covert and institutional discrimination. It is the reason for all those “check boxes” for racial identity that no one loves…

…People, including students, are not discriminated against on the basis of being mixed-race, but rather on the basis of being one part of that mixture The federal race categories, crude as they might be, allow us to track how people are treated based on how they are perceived by others. The dangerous result of the Education Department’s provision will be two-fold.

On one hand, the “two or more races” category will provide no useful data for compliance monitoring; while on the other, real racial discrimination against some students will go untracked by the compliance monitoring apparatus because students who check more than one box will not be placed in the categories that are in fact motivating their unjust treatment…

Rainier Spencer

…But a new generation has arrived, more mixed than any before, and these young Americans are quite uninterested in seeking permission to sit in one of four or five colored boxes. Today’s multiracial Americans are at greater liberty to choose how they’d like to be seen, and under less pressure to pass for white.This is progress. At the same time, the blurring of race labels is neither the dawn of colorblindness nor the dusk of racism. Go to a place like Rio (or, for that matter, New Orleans), where people of many races mix, where there are many fine distinctions of shade—and where lighter is still usually seen as better.If whiteness were of no particular advantage, then having a fuller color wheel of skin tones would be purely a matter of celebration. But whiteness – just a drop of it – does still carry privilege. You learn that very young in America…Eric Liu

…This conflation of race and ethnicity inevitably distorts the diagnosis of the unique educational problems of black Hispanics—or, worse yet, averages them into obsolescence. This is particularly harmful because false or partial diagnosis of any problem inevitably produces less effective policy responses…Anthony P. Carnevale

…All children are worthy of recognition of their entire heritage. If we teach our children to tell the truth and then stand in the way of them doing that on school forms, we are missing the point. If accurate data are what we want, true identity of our students is what we must collect and reflect.We are not asking for a piece of the pie, but we need to be reflected on those data pie charts. Tracking the multiracial population is no less important than tracking any other group…Susan Graham

…Categorizing and counting students by race still has relevance since blacks and Latinos continue to experience educational inequality as shown by achievement data and the resources available in the public schools they attend. Where poverty and race are linked these problems are compounded……The rise of multiracial identification stems from a resistance to obdurate historical racial categories and the reality that there are more children now with parents of different races. Do you erase part of who you are if you are forced to choose one race over another when you really feel like you are part of both? Do you diminish the political power of a historically oppressed group if you do not choose to make that group your primary identifier? And who gets to say who you are anyway?…Gerald Torres

Read the entire debate here.

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