Counting by Race Can Throw Off Some Numbers

Counting by Race Can Throw Off Some Numbers

The New York Times

Susan Saulny, National Correspondent

Race Remixed: The Pigeonhole Problem. Articles in this series explore the growing number of mixed-race Americans.

The federal Department of Education would categorize Michelle López-Mullins—a university student who is of Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee and Cherokee descent—as “Hispanic.” But the National Center for Health Statistics, the government agency that tracks data on births and deaths, would pronounce her “Asian.” And what does Ms. López-Mullins’s birth certificate from the State of Maryland say? It doesn’t mention her race.

Ms. López-Mullins, 20, usually marks “other” on surveys these days, but when she filled out a census form last year, she chose Asian, Hispanic, Native American and white.

The chameleon-like quality of Ms. López-Mullins’s racial and ethnic identification might seem trivial except that statistics on ethnicity and race are used for many important purposes. These include assessing disparities in health, education, employment and housing, enforcing civil rights protections, and deciding who might qualify for special consideration as members of underrepresented minority groups.

But when it comes to keeping racial statistics, the nation is in transition, moving, often without uniformity, from the old “mark one box” limit to allowing citizens to check as many boxes as their backgrounds demand. Changes in how Americans are counted by race and ethnicity are meant to improve the precision with which the nation’s growing diversity is gauged: the number of mixed-race Americans, for example, is rising rapidly, largely because of increases in immigration and intermarriage in the past two decades. (One in seven new marriages is now interracial or interethnic.)…

…Under Department of Education requirements that take effect this year, for instance, any student like Ms. López-Mullins who acknowledges even partial Hispanic ethnicity will, regardless of race, be reported to federal officials only as Hispanic. And students of non-Hispanic mixed parentage who choose more than one race will be placed in a “two or more races” category, a catchall that detractors describe as inadequately detailed. A child of black and American Indian parents, for example, would be in the same category as, say, a child of white and Asian parents.

The new standards for kindergarten through 12th grades and higher education will probably increase the nationwide student population of Hispanics, and could erase some “black” students who will now be counted as Hispanic or as multiracial (in the “two or more races category”). And reclassifying large numbers of white Hispanic students as simply Hispanic has the potential to mask the difference between minority and white students’ test scores, grades and graduation rates—the so-called achievement gap, a target of federal reform efforts that has plagued schools for decades.

“They’re all lumped together—blacks, Asians and Latinos—and they all look the same from the data perspective,” said Daniel J. Losen, a policy expert for the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, referring to the Department of Education aggregation. “But the reality is much different. There are different kinds of discrimination experienced by these subgroups.

“It’s a big problem for researchers,” Mr. Losen continued, “because it throws a monkey wrench in our efforts at accountability, student tracking and the study of trends.”…

…The Census Bureau’s solution may have added layers of complexity for demographers—creating 63 categories of possible racial combinations—but it laid to rest fears from civil rights advocates that adding a multiracial category would diminish the number of blacks, Asians or American Indians in official government counts, since multiracial people are counted in the ranks of all of the races they check. (This does not distort the total population of the United States because that number is based on how many people answer the census questionnaire, not on adding the totals from each racial column.)

Even the Census Bureau acknowledges that accurately counting the multiracial population is a challenge and says it continues to explore ways to do it better, said Nicholas A. Jones, chief of the racial statistics branch. Some people of mixed race were fickle about their racial identifications in early tests of the new, more expansive methods, changing their answers from interview to interview.

Moreover, because the census in 2000 began allowing respondents to mark as many races as they wanted, today’s numbers are not directly comparable with those before 2000…

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