Sociologist Proposes New System of Racial Identification

Released: 15-Feb-2005 1:20 PM EST
Embargo expired: 19-Feb-2005 9:50 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Cornell University
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Citations 2005 AAAS

Newswise — Federal government forms now allow people to officially identify with up to six different racial groups -- a fundamental change that is designed for multiracial categorization. But the "mark one or more boxes" system has flaws -- most evident in the 2000 census -- that are now rising to the surface, according to a leading sociologist.

In tabulating race data, says Cornell University professor of sociology David Harris, multiracial self-reporting is often defaulted back into a single race category. The most glaring example is with people who indicate they are both white and Native American: For some purposes, the census count automatically defaults to Native American, exaggerating the demographics of an entire population.

Harris, who also is director of the Institute for Social Sciences at Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., addresses the problems in the use of census data in a talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at 9:45 a.m. today (Feb. 19) at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel. In a presentation titled "Social Construction of Race and Implications for Policy and Research," Harris will discuss his research in race and ethnicity, social inequality, identity and social demography. His talk will be part of a AAAS seminar titled "New Developments in Human and Social Dynamics: Dimensions of Diversity."

The census approach to racial identification, says Harris, "raises difficult questions about how census data is used to assess the conditions of racial populations, as well as how it can be used to monitor and enforce civil rights laws." Instead Harris proposes what he calls a "matrix of race" that embraces the "multidimensional, socially constructed nature of racial classification."

The matrix of race identifies the most common bases for racial classification in three vertical columns: Genotype-Ancestry, Phenotype and Culture. These are intersected by three horizontal "perspectives" for racial classification: Internal, Expressed and External, creating nine "cells" of identification.

"Because race is a social construct, the allocation of individuals into racial categories is a social process," Harris explains. "As a result, a person whose expressed race is white and Asian might be treated as Asian by some people, but multiracial or white in contexts where alternative racial ideologies are operational. Similarly, people who express a strong white-black identity with friends might mark black on the census to indicate their political and cultural connection to blacks."

He continues, "Race is important, but the individual is the wrong unit of analysis. I am not attempting to impose a theory, I am arguing for the use of observations from the real world to inform how we collect and use racial data."

The 1997 revision of the Office of Management and Budget Directive No. 15 (OMB15) provides up to six categories of race in the census and allows people to identify with more than one race (leaving more than 128 possible outcomes). It was issued in response to mounting opposition from "people who objected to having to choose only one race on school registration and other governmental forms."

This was a reworking of the original federal effort to standardize race data that OMB15 issued in 1977, which established self-identification as the preferred method for racial classification. It designated four categories for data on race -- white, black, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaskan native. It also identified two categories for data on ethnicity -- Hispanic and not Hispanic -- and allowed agencies to use any racial categories in data collection, as long as responses could be uniquely classified into one of the four racial categories and one of the two ethnic categories.

Harris' presentation is based in large part on his 2003 study, "New Approaches to the Measurement of Race and Ethnicity: Beyond Census 2000," and includes recent data, primarily from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and from Harris' Web-based survey.

Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide additional information on this news release. Some might not be part of the Cornell University community, and Cornell has no control over their content or availability.

*David Harris : http://www.allharris.com


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