Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Which Box Should I Check, and Why?

My previous entry on Tiger Woods notwithstanding, I’m truly not opposed to the so-called multiracial movement.
The central topic of my senior thesis was the political activism of New Orleans’ freeborn people of color during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In antebellum New Orleans, this was a predominantly “multiracial” group living in a tripartite racial system. After 1865, this group found itself coping with the realities of a monoracial society.

A monoracial view of the United States ignores not only our history, but also social, cultural, economic, and political realities. The fact that this monoracial viewpoint continues to be reflected in the manner in which the federal government collects data on race is not, in my opinion, a very good thing. I was surprised, however, at my own reaction when I looked at the new guidelines proposed by the Department of Education with respect to racial classifications for students. This reaction ran the gamut of emotions from skepticism to more skepticism.

Nine years ago, the United States Office of Management and Budget set forth guidelines mandating that individuals completing federally required forms be allowed to mark more than one racial category to identify themselves on such forms. The U.S. Census adopted that change, using it in 2000. 6.8 million people elected to identify themselves as multiracial. Timely, as ever, the Department of Education is now proposing regulations allowing students to self-identify in as many categories as they want.

As it stands now, institutions of higher learning must report how many of their students fall into one of five categories. These categories are the “old stand-bys”: (1) black; (2) white; (3) Hispanic; (4) Asian/Pacific Islander; and (5) Native American/Alaska Native.

There were plenty of reasons why it took the Department of Education such a comparatively long time to propose its own new set of standards, “stability” being perhaps the most obvious and important. Most institutions affected by these changes have been collecting their own data on this for years, and they certainly expected the Department of Education to eventually implement such changes.

The regulations proposed by the Department of Education asks first if the student is Hispanic and then asks students to select one or more descriptions from the groups American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and white. Uh-oh.

Aggregate statistical data and statistical comparisons to previous years will be extremely difficult, as the new regulations would not require updating existing records and statistics. A student who self-identified as “black” in 2006 but as “multiracial” in 2007 will make it seem as if yet another black student has fallen from the rolls. At this point, sociology is causing at least as big of a fuss as logistics.

In case you missed it, under the new regulations, students who self-identify as Hispanic would be counted only as Hispanics, regardless of whether they also check off or circle other categories. If non-Hispanic students responding to the second question check off more than one racial category, these students will be listed under “two or more races.” Those races will not be specified.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think that the Latino/Hispanic “lobby” threw its weight around on this. I just think the Department of Education got this one wrong. An obvious outcome under these proposed regulations appears to be that the number of Hispanic students counted would be maximized while counts for other racial groups would be diminished. Someone who self-identifies as Hispanic and black is counted as Hispanic. Someone who self-identifies as black and Native American is counted as "multiracial".
So, two students rightly or wrongly limited to identification as black under the current regulations would now be counted as Hispanic and "multiracial" under the proposed regulations. Substitute any non-Hispanic racial classification for "black" and the example still holds true. "Vanishing" non-Hispanic students who reappear in a generic "other" category does not seem like such a great thing to me. There has to be a better way to recognize the need for multiracial identification.

In addition, while the proposed regulations provide, on the surface at least, a greater opportunity for accurate self-identification, the end result seems unsatisfactory. An individual who self-identifies as “multiracial” is lumped into this “two or more” category with no ultimate distinction made as to which two or more races she has selected. At the end of the day, for statistical purposes, there’s still no distinction made between lots of racial categories. Instead of having one or more aspects of your racial heritage “ignored”, all are now ignored or at least not identified with any degree of specificity.

I don’t even pretend to have an answer for this one. The Department of Education, as with a lot of other federal agencies, has to balance a lot of concerns and interests. The department is accepting public comments on its proposed guidelines until September 21, 2006. At least there is now a greater opportunity for a legitimate discussion on an important issue.


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