…that the U.S. Census Bureau requires our racial designation?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that the U.S. Census Bureau requires our racial designation?

A: Most of us have grown accustomed to filling out forms that ask us to check boxes indicating our sex and race. In fact, we’ve become so desensitized to this process that most of us regard these questions as routine – with few questioning why these designations are needed and how they might be utilized. In most cases, requests for racial identification must be optional. But when it comes to the U.S. Census, we’re required to “check one box” that designates our racial category.

A quick peek at the online census questionnaire reveals an “official” explanation of why the information for each question is required. When it comes to sex, the bureau tells us that – since 1970 – this information has been collected and used to ensure that publically funded agencies are adhering to legislation related to Civil Rights, Voting Rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. Coinciding with the onset of the Women’s Liberation Movement, this explanation appears valid and credible – at least on face value.

When viewing the reasons why racial classifications are required, the bureau provides the same, exact explanation. However, the validity and credibility of their reasoning unravels when noting that the year in which racial designations became required elements of the U.S. Census was 1790! One can not reasonably argue that labeling the race of each U.S. resident was used in an effort to ensure equal rights and protection under the law during the centuries of institutionalized slavery, Jim Crowism and a full 170 years prior to the establishment of Civil Rights laws.

The U.S. is, and has always been, preoccupied with racial divisions. The practice of officially classifying humans into racial categories can be traced back to the early 1700s. Prior to this trend, the dominant scientific perspectives had been monogenetic (the notion that all humans descended from a common origin). But with the onset of Western European colonialism, the designation of racial categories became a systematic and institutional mechanism to ensure that the stronghold and entitlement of political, economic and social power remained in the hands of whites, demoting the indigenous people “of color” to subservient roles as slaves and/or colonial subjects.

According to biologists and anthropologists alike, racial classifications have little scientific basis and are primarily social constructs designed to delineate lines of power on the basis of skin color. Noted anthropologist Gerald Sider stated: “The goal of racial designation is to concentrate power, wealth, privilege and land in the hands of white society. (Racial) differences have less to do with biology and more to do with historic racism and white supremacy.”

The classification of race is fluid, elusive and grossly contaminated with statistical error. Historically, the white, ruling class had a vested interest in remaining genetically “pure.” Any individual possessing “one drop of Negro blood” was categorically labeled as “black” and thereby denied rights and opportunities. But, contemporary American society has now grown into an ethnically blended, genetic pool – where the lines of race have become blurred and increasingly difficult to determine. And although we boast pride in our “melting-pot” ideologies, it appears as though the “ruling class” is still, very much invested in racial separatism. For example, prior to 1980, infants born to inter-racial couples were automatically assigned the race of the non-white parent by the Bureau of Vital Statistics. In 1980, the bureau changed their criteria for bi-racial newborns so they would be assigned the race of the mother instead. Either way, the demographic data from this era shrouded the incidents of bi-racial births in a cloak of invisibility – statistically rendering them non-existent. But why?

A recent Associated Press release stated that 2010 could be the year when minority babies outnumber whites, adding that these numbers “highlight the nation’s racial divide, which could heighten tensions.” The choice of wording here reflects the tension of those in power who feel their stronghold of superiority threatened by the increase in our nation’s ethnic diversity.

Disturbingly similar to my column of February 19, the requirement to designate our race on the U.S. Census can be likened to Breed Specific Legislation – which categorizes canine breeds as more or less desirable. While some may argue that “racial profiling” ensures the equitable allocation of resources to minorities, our nation’s history has provided ample evidence to the contrary. My suggestion? When asked to designate your race on the census…simply write in human.