Filling in the Blanks: The Politics of Racial Counting in America

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?


6 thoughts on “Filling in the Blanks: The Politics of Racial Counting in America

  1. Interesting stuff. I remember that when asked for my race in documents, I usually put down human since I believe this is common sense. While I believe that all humans are the same and share that connection, I’ve also realized that we cannot remain color blind. Many times, race is a taboo subject in our society. Having a dialogue where we can acknowledge that our colors and cultures are a part of a beautifully important mosaic is important. We must acknowledge that racism still exists, and we can’t fight against racism if we don’t acknowledge race. I do agree that the broad Latino/Hispanic category does shy away from and does not take into account all of the racial complexities that different Latino groups have. The fact of the matter is that Latino is not a race; Latino’s have varying European, Native American, and African American influences. I also connect with you when you state that you are puzzled as to what purpose your race/ethnicity will serve in statistics, since the statistics are not collected and created in a correct way. Also, while statistics do show that people of color have educational disadvantages, what more are they doing than stating the obvious? Why is the government not making more effective changes to combat these things if they have all the data available at their fingertips?

  2. I think raises some really important issues about how we look at race – or really any identity – in the political process. I completely agree that trying to mathematically categorize certain individuals so that they fit into one box completely undermines their goal of trying to collect data in order to improve certain inequalities. I also find the “other” box, and you pointed out, problematic, since it make the entire process somewhat ambiguous. If someone can just check “other,” which I feel like anyone could do really depending on how they think about and define race, then what is the point of trying to collect accurate data on all of this anyways? Though I completely agree that race is a very important thing to consider in the US, I’m not sure that collecting data on it is all that helpful simply because it seems nearly impossible to do so accurately. I think that when we try to break down these big issues in terms of numbers and statistics, we aren’t really solving anything. I think time would be better spent talking to people of different races and from different backgrounds and really getting a sense of what is going on in communities. Numbers will never paint a full picture of the situation.

  3. I hear you, Maylee. As a Pakistani/Afghani/Burmese- American, I usually choose to check the “other” box whenever asked. I wonder how much this affects the data being collected. I used to think that not identifying with a specific race meant that I was refusing to participate in this problematic process altogether; however, I now wonder if my not categorizing myself actually ends up hurting ethnic groups I identify with.
    I guess organizations like these are collecting this data to eventually help resolve many of the race-related issues we face in this country. Like you mentioned, though, the process itself is skewed and problematic. Are there any more innovative and fair methods for studying different ethnic groups? Also, how effective have the current data collection methods been?

  4. The romance of identity and of being recognized, by the state or peers or society etc., has had a really strong grasp on the political imagination of the left for so long. You do such a great job here of laying out why we should be wary of the calculus of racial difference. The way questions are asked almost always tells us more than the answers themselves, when it comes to the ways in which the state in particular performs its role of producing particular kinds of citizens. So, is every kind of computation the state develops problematic by virtue of its being in the interests of the state rather than vulnerable populations? What modes of analysis and cultural recognition can we align ourselves with and give our resources to instead? If not counting, then what?

    • I think it’s easy to write off these forms and numbers because it often seems as if the languages of statistical analysis and social theory are inherently discordant. These racial and ethnic categories are by no means perfect or even complex enough to interpret the profound qualities of racial identity. In fact, one must question and recognize the context in which these categories are determined and which structures of authority legitimize them. Even as a self-hating sociology student, I’ve had the experience of sorting through census data and have felt uncomfortable by my power to determine which ethnicities belong in which racial categories for my research.
      However, I don’t think that we can just write these numbers off as too superficial and consequently void. These statistics and numbers give us insight on larger populations, even if a distorted one. Individual descriptive portraits can be even more deleterious and problematic if used in a strategically biased way. While it is important to keep questioning the types of data that we vest authority in and acknowledge that these racial categories need to be re-imagined and expanded upon, I don’t believe that numbers are solely counterproductive. I do believe that their definitions and values need to be contested, but I also believe that it must always be an ongoing process. There are social justice-oriented sociologists and data analysts out there! They need lovin’ and data too!

      • Yes, Dan Ping, thank you for repping for sociology! This made me think hard. Here are my two cents.

        Subsequent to what you explain above, that statistical data cannot adequately reflect the complexity of a time/place/problem, one of the most important tasks sociologists undertake (and a lot of them do) is examining the way different organizations create data, why, and what they do with it. These are occasions where imaginative sociologists employ social and cultural analysis to bring more complexity and a sharper critical objective to their data. I think you’re right that statistical data about vulnerable human populations is crucial. It’s important to know, for example, that people of color are serving disproportionately in the military, and that transgender folks have a shorter life expectancy than cisgendered, or “normal” gender-presenting folks. But it’s important to ask what kind of knowledge is being sought by particular data sets. To tie it to Mary’s post about Short Eyes and prison culture: Charts about crime levels in low-income neighborhoods have often done more to attach criminality to brown bodies than to expose the structures of deprivation and dominance that motivate people’s actions against inherently racist an classist laws. Data about poor, nonwhite populations often allow us to ignore the racism that leads the legal system to criminalize and excessively penalize behaviors that are linked to poverty more often than behaviors that are linked to wealth. Statistics often have the effect of producing truths rather than revealing them. Which is not to say sociology should be banished, but that the most effective forms of sociological work combine cultural with mathematical knowledge production. Producing numbers is not counterproductive, because it allows us to compare the results to what we know culturally, see the problems and modify our methods; but, by and large, who’s getting money to produce what kinds of numbers? And what kinds of knowledge are these numbers producing?

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