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Higher education expresses concerns with multiple-choice census

Now that the debate is over about whether the U.S. Census should add
a multiracial category to its data collecting and the decision has been
made to allow respondents to choose as many racial and ethnic
classifications as they feel apply to them, the time has come to figure
out how this new and confusing information will be tabulated.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has set up a year-long
task force to study exactly that: how to tabulate data from the 2000

Earlier this year, the OMB announced that it will allow people to
check off as many racial and ethnic categories as they feel apply to
them on their census forms. Because some people will check more than
one category, government agencies will have to sort and interpret the
data as it relates to things like voting districts and educational
funding. That is what is causing concern among civil rights groups,
ethnic organizations, and higher education officials.

“We support the notion of self-identification, [but] we have major
concerns with the tabulation of the information and the interpretation
of information – particularly in the area of civil rights and
affirmative action,” said Eric Rodriquez, policy analyst for the
National Council of La Raza.

The OMB announced its multiple-choice decision after years of survey
testing and discussions across the country with individuals and groups
who wanted to say something about how Americans will be counted in
2000. The agency’s decision does not alter the fact that for Census
purposes, there are four racial groups – White, Black/African American,
American Indian and Alaska Native, and Asian and Pacific Islander – and
one ethnic group – Hispanics/Latinos.

The new option confuses racial counting, said Dr. Reginald Wilson,
senior scholar for the American Council on Education. He and other
observers say that no matter how many categories a person checks, they
will still have to be counted as part of only one racial or ethnic

“After you’ve said you’re Korean, Mexican American, and Black, you
can’t have a person who is counted as Black, Korean, and Mexican
American,” said Wilson. “You’re going to pick one [racial or ethnic
option], or – whether you like it or not – one is going to be picked
for you.”

Politics, rather than accurately reflecting the nation’s history of
racial mixing, dictated the OMB decision to allow people to check more
than one race, according to Wilson.

“It was a political decision,” he said, “a compromise between
[President Bill] Clinton and the Republicans in the Congress who were
hoping to confuse things so that it will mask the slipping back of
affirmative action programs… I don’t think it was a great decision,
but it was a political one.”

Government officials are also concerned about how this new data will
be tabulated, said Nampeo McKenney, senior research and technical
advisor at the U.S. Census Bureau. During the coming year, Census
Bureau staff members will be consulting with “data users, policy makers
and a number of groups that have raised questions” as they determine
exactly how to use the multiracial data.

“The question of how this would affect tabulating data for the
federal government is very complex,” said McKenney, who believes that
so few people will check off more than one racial box that the impact
will be negligible.

“We did some tests, and the results suggest that overall, 2 percent
of the populations would report more than one race,” she said, although
she added, “One cannot tell, once people become aware that they can
report more than one race, [how many will do so].”

Such a small number of people with mixed Black and White ancestry
would choose to report more than one race that it wouldn’t affect the
count of Black people, according to McKenney.

The same cannot be said for some other racial groups, Wilson said.
The rate of intermarriage among racial and ethnic groups is increasing
rapidly. More than 70 percent of Asian women marry White men, more than
40 percent of Latinas marry White men, and about 10 percent of Blacks
marry someone who is not Black, Wilson noted.

The idea of claiming more than one racial heritage has much more
appeal among young people than older generations, said Wilson, who
predicts that as today’s children of intermarriage mature, they will be
more likely to acknowledge their multiple racial heritages on the
Census and other official forms.

Ideally as time passes, the nation will not have to deal with racial
counts so strictly, he said, but with racism so alive and entrenched in
this country, Wilson doesn’t foresee that happening soon.

Many groups are waiting to see what proposals the OMB task force will develop before taking a stand on the new decision.

“We haven’t really taken a position on that particular one,” said
Angelica Santacruz, associate director of government relations for the
Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU).

The net impact of the decision on members of HACU is difficult to
determine, Santacruz said, because so much of the data used comes from
a different source than the Census.

“The Department of Education has a form which these institutions
have to fill out saying how many students have enrolled in a given
year. They have to be more accurate [than the Census] because [they are
completed more often than] every ten years.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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