STARTING in 1790, and every 10 years since, the census has sorted the American population into distinct racial groups. Remarkably, a discredited relic of 18th-century science, the “five races of mankind,” lives on in the 21st century. Today, the census calls these five races white; black; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
The nation’s founders put a hierarchical racial classification to political use: its premise of white supremacy justified, among other things, enslaving Africans, violent removal of Native Americans from their land, the colonization of Caribbean and Pacific islands, Jim Crow subjugation and the importation of cheap labor from China and Mexico.
But the demographic revolution since the immigration overhaul of 1965 has pushed the outdated (and politically constructed) notion of race to the breaking point. In June the Supreme Court struck down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act, taking note of changing demographics. I disagree with the court’s ruling, but agree that society is changing. And our statistics must reflect those changes.And then a prescription for change:
I URGE three actions. First, drop the current race questions, which misleadingly conflate race and nationality, and ask two new questions: one based on a streamlined version of today’s ethnic and racial categories, and a separate, comprehensive nationality question.
Second, add parental place of birth to the census. One-fourth of Americans under the age of 18 are children of immigrants — a proportion that will increase sharply over the next quarter-century.
Third, slowly phase in the use of the data to make policy. Americans may hope for a colorblind future, but we know that the legacy of discrimination continues to haunt us; that some new immigrants are assimilated even as others are left behind; that new versions of racism crop up, within as well as among the five “races.”With any luck these ideas will resonate within and beyond the Census Bureau, allowing us to start collecting data that are more realistic and more informative about the nation's demographics.