Multiracial America Makes Census Boxes Obsolete

As the nation becomes more multiracial, some question whether the survey can accurately reflect the country's true diversity.

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Editor’s note: This is the first of three in a series.

(The Root) — In 30 years, America will look very different than it does now. According to analysis of census data, by 2043 white Americans will no longer be a majority. But an equally significant population milestone will arrive in 2020. That is the year in which the next census takes place, and it will be the first one tasked with successfully chronicling the most racially and culturally mixed population in American history.

Governing the nation at the very time the census is grappling with this issue is the country’s first biracial president. Though President Obama has said he identifies as black on the census, there is a growing population of people who may share a similar background but do not wish to identify as he has chosen to. Helping to ensure that these Americans are adequately and accurately counted through his administration’s efforts to perfect a modern census could end up being a significant part of the Obama legacy.

Multiracial Americans are the fastest growing demographic in the country, yet the U.S. Census Bureau has struggled with how to effectively capture the changing racial makeup of America. In his new book What Is Your RaceThe Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans, Kenneth Prewitt takes the census to task for its many shortcomings when it comes to painting an accurate portrait of America’s racial and cultural landscape. Prewitt, though, is not just any run-of-the-mill critic. He is a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, where he served from 1998 to 2001.

In an interview with The Root, Prewitt explained that America is unique in its racial categorization and its reasons for categorizing. “We decided why we wanted racial statistics and the purpose of them, and then designed statistics to accomplish those purposes.”

So, for instance, when a compromise was needed to appease Southerners to get the House of Representatives up and running in the late 18th century, black slaves were counted as three fifths of a person. Then by the mid-20th century, as the civil rights movement became enshrined in legislative policies such as affirmative action, collecting accurate racial data became a key tool in the quest for social justice.

But as previously noted on The Rootthere is passionate debate raging over whether a wealthy, first-generation African immigrant is the intended beneficiary of American affirmative-action programs. This kind of debate is the crux of Prewitt’s argument.

In 1790, the first census was taken, and by the close of that century would attempt to categorize Americans based on five color divisions: white, black, red, yellow and brown. Those categories form the foundation for what are still the primary census racial classifications of white, black/African-American, American Indian and Asian, with categories like Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian being relatively recent additions.

The 2000 census would mark the first time individuals were permitted to check more than one racial classification. (Fascinatingly, according to Prewitt’s book, conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich pushed the issue, inspired by the parent of a biracial child in his district.) But Prewitt makes a compelling case that it is still falling short.

“Nobody else uses these five categories as their management system for race and ethnicity.” When asked if that is because other places have less diversity or are simply better at categorization, he replied, “I think it’s because they are not as deeply racist as we are. I’m serious. This racial categorization and conversation got a hold of us back in the slavery days, and we have repeated it and repeated it.”