What Is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans

What Is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans

Princeton University Press
June 2013
296 pages
6 x 9; 5 line illus. 3 tables.
Cloth ISBN: 9780691157030
eBook ISBN: 9781400846795

Kenneth Prewitt, Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs
Columbia University
Also former director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001

America is preoccupied with race statistics–perhaps more than any other nation. Do these statistics illuminate social reality and produce coherent social policy, or cloud that reality and confuse social policy? Does America still have a color line? Who is on which side? Does it have a different “race” line—the nativity line—separating the native born from the foreign born? You might expect to answer these and similar questions with the government’s “statistical races.” Not likely, observes Kenneth Prewitt, who shows why the way we count by race is flawed.

Prewitt calls for radical change. The nation needs to move beyond a race classification whose origins are in discredited eighteenth-century race-is-biology science, a classification that once defined Japanese and Chinese as separate races, but now combines them as a statistical “Asian race.” One that once tried to divide the “white race” into “good whites” and “bad whites,” and that today cannot distinguish descendants of Africans brought in chains four hundred years ago from children of Ethiopian parents who eagerly immigrated twenty years ago. Contrary to common sense, the classification says there are only two ethnicities in America—Hispanics and non-Hispanics. But if the old classification is cast aside, is there something better?

What Is Your Race? clearly lays out the steps that can take the nation from where it is to where it needs to be. It’s not an overnight task—particularly the explosive step of dropping today’s race question from the census—but Prewitt argues persuasively that radical change is technically and politically achievable, and morally necessary.


  • List of Figures and Tables
  • Preface
  • Part I What Are Statistical Races?
  • Part II Policy, Statistics, and Science Join Forces
    • Chapter 3 The Compromise That Made the Republic and the Nation’s First Statistical Race
    • Chapter 4 Race Science Captures the Prize, the U.S. Census
    • Chapter 5 How Many White Races Are There?
  • Part III When You Have a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail
    • Chapter 6 Racial Justice Finds a Policy Tool
    • Chapter 7 When You Have a Hammer: Statistical Races Misused
  • Part IV The Statistical Races under Pressure, and a Fresh Rationale
    • Chapter 8 Pressures Mount
    • Chapter 9 The Problem of the Twenty-first Century Is the Problem of the Color Line as It Intersects the Nativity Line
  • Part V What We Have Is Not What We Need
    • Chapter 10 Where Are We Exactly?
    • Chapter 11 Getting from Where We Are to Where We Need to Be
  • Appendix: Perspectives from Abroad–Brazil, France, Israel
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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