At some point in your life, you have most likely filled in a bubble that marks your race/ethnicity, and this scribble that you make is compiled with hundreds of thousands of other scribbles, all of them turning identities into official statistics. The mark you make reifies your identity institutionally in the education system, the census, college applications, the health system, etc. If you are anything like me, you have probably looked down at the official paper in your hands and felt that the scribble you are about to make doesn’t exactly reflect you, your choices are slim, and it feels reductive, a misrepresentation of your identity. You can always check “other” but who wants to be an “other”?
While the federal government has set standards for race and ethnicity data collection, there is still no universal way of collecting this data—the Department of Education, the National Center for Health Statistics and the US Census Bureau, for example, all use different modes of data collection, making analysis and assessments incredibly complex and difficult. A recent article in the New York Times discusses the way that the Department of Education has some controversial new requirements that came into effect this year. For example, if you even acknowledge partial Hispanic/Latino ethnicity (disregarding race), you will automatically be counted as only “Hispanic/Latino.” So, say you are of Chinese, Colombian, and African-American descent—you will only be reported as Hispanic/Latino. If you identify as mixed heritage and check more than one box you will be lumped together with anyone else who has checked two or more races-so, for example, someone who is white and Asian would be placed in a category as someone who checked black and Native American in an umbrella “two or more races” category. The Department of Education sees this as a step up from the more limited choices in the past, (a more comprehensive way to count Hispanics/Latinos who were often undercounted when students were identified by one race) and overall a way to accommodate the growing multiracial population in the United States.
But these new regulations are problematic for many reasons. These standards will increase the Hispanic/Latino count in the US by including white Hispanic/Latino students and will possibly erase black students who will be grouped as Hispanic/Latino or as “two or more races.” The way in which the Hispanic/Latino category supersedes everything else ignores the racial complexity of Hispanic/Latino students and essentially makes Hispanic/Latino into a racial category. The “two or more races” category is meaningless, grouping together people from many wide ranging social spheres who do not face similar types of discrimination––making statistical analysis impossible. Overall, these classifications are extremely problematic from a civil rights standpoint, in terms of tracking achievement gaps, pinpointing inequalities between white students and students of color, and finding ways to allocate resources to underrepresented groups.
On top of the Department of Education’s racial data collection system, the National Center for Health Statistics has come up with an actual algorithm that will recategorize mixed race births as one race depending on many different variables in a probability model. The center is using mathematics to define people and classify them, which seems extremely counterproductive to gathering accurate information and data.
It is incredibly frustrating knowing that with all the different ways of race/ethnicity data collection and reporting and no official standards, the original data you provide can be manipulated and altered to serve specific purposes. While the US is trying to account for the “hybrid generation” and the growing multiracial population that some see as a step towards the US being “post-racial,” the fact remains that race is still relevant, still a source of discrimination and inequality, and still important to analyze. But the way the Department of Education and other institutions in the US are going about this is misleading. Next time I fill out some sort of official document, I wonder what purpose my statistical bubble self will be serving. Will my own answer end up complicating social realities and contributing to the masking of inequalities?