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Census a Poor Tool for Addressing Race

Census a Poor Tool for Addressing Race
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Tuesday, 03 April 2018 12:45 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Should the 2020 U.S. Census ask if people are U.S. citizens? There have been arguments about this lately, and lawsuits are challenging the constitutionality of adding this question to the census. The courts are unlikely to find unconstitutionality, though, since citizenship status has been included in the census on and off since 1820.

The wisdom (but not the constitutionality) of a different part of the census definitely needs to be questioned, however: asking people to indicate their race. The question is not whether race and racism continue to be huge problems, but whether gathering statistics about the racial makeup of the population will contribute to solving these problems.

Recording racial data began in the first ( 1790) census because the Constitution required that slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person in determining each state's membership in the House of Representatives. Southern delegates at the constitutional convention wanted slaves to count as full persons, which would increase southern political strength in the House. Northerners didn't want to count slaves at all, for the same reason. The three-fifths rule was a compromise. Of course the southerners had no intention of letting slaves vote.

The original reason for ascertaining race in the census disappeared after adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which respectively abolished slavery, made the former slaves citizens with full equal protection of the laws, and gave the vote to former male slaves. The former slaves now counted as full persons. But racial information continued to be collected.

The courts took a long time to implement the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Segregated public schools still existed nearly a hundred years after these amendments were added. A particularly pernicious 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537) upheld 7 to 1 legislation requiring railroads to maintain separate passenger cars for black people and white people. The lone dissenting justice, John Marshall Harlan, issued the only opinion in the case that has stood the test of time: "Our Constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."

Of course we are not colorblind in the sense of not noticing racial differences. As columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. notes in the Miami Herald of July 7, 2017, "I am reminded of those people who would end racial prejudice by having us all claim to be 'colorblind,' i.e. pretend we don't see race. But prejudice doesn't come because we 'notice' so-and-so is black. Rather , it comes with the assumptions we attach to that fact."

Counting people by race in the census implies that race is important and reinforces the stereotypical thinking that lies at the heart of racism. A government seeking to undermine racism should set a good example and not encourage people to think of themselves as members of particular races. If the Constitution "neither knows nor tolerates" classes among citizens, it would seem to follow that the census required by that Constitution should not force citizens to classify themselves in terms of race.

Gathering and analyzing racial statistics is expensive. The mathematical skills necessary to work with statistics command high salaries and no doubt a good deal of taxpayer money is being used for this. This money might be better spent on other programs.

Racial statistics lend themselves to uses which inflame public passions and reinforce stereotyping. We frequently hear that smaller than average numbers of minority people are employed in various professions.

These constant reminders may sound insulting and discourage minorities from aspiring to those professions, making them seem out of reach. Unfortunately there is no way to know how many ought to be employed, say, as accountants. Asking ourselves what percentage of professional basketball players ought to be black people suggests the inherent futility of this question.

If race remains a question in the census, people should be given the option of declaring themselves members of the human race. From one census to the next we could then measure progress towards a society where race is no longer a problem. As more people choose to identify themselves as members of the human race, we will know that we are moving forward. But it might be better simply to remove questions about race completely from the census at the earliest time possible.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

 

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PaulFdeLespinasse
The question is not whether race and racism continue to be huge problems, but whether gathering statistics about the racial makeup of the population will contribute to solving these problems.
ferguson, person, plessy
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2018-45-03
Tuesday, 03 April 2018 12:45 PM
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