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Census Race Classifications Evolve, Unlikely to Go, Says Omi

By Neil Swan

While racial and ethnic classifications, as used by the Census Bureau, are distasteful to many and there are movements toward multiracial or "color blind" policies and practices, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. can or should totally abandon the use of such categories in the foreseeable future, according to a leading scholar of ethnic studies at Berkeley. Some type of racial categorization is needed to help guard against discrimination, he said.

Racial categories are never static or stable, but are constantly changing because of shifting demographics and issues and evolving social identities, according to Dr. Michael Omi in a lecture Mar. 27 sponsored by NCI's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities.

A key message of the center is that leading scientists have determined that race and ethnic classifications have been socially and politically determined and have no basis in biological science. The center seeks to reduce the unequal burden of cancer in our society by removing barriers — particularly racial and ethnic perceptions — that prevent medical research benefits from reaching all populations equally.

Dr. Michael Omi
While the idea that race has no biological basis is now endorsed by leading scientific organizations, it is still an "issue that won't go away," said Omi, pointing to a headline in the previous week's New York Times about two articles in the Mar. 20 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that take opposing views on whether race is a meaningful factor in medicine. Debates about racial classification have raged for years, said Omi, who is professor of ethnic studies and acting director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley. He is coauthor with Howard Winant of Racial Formation in the United States, now considered a classic work in scholarly studies on race and ethnicity.

Omi has used Census Bureau data and its racial and ethnic classifications drawn up by the Office of Management and Budget as a barometer of the issue. "These census definitions have had the unintended consequence of shaping the very discourse of race and the distribution of vast resources," he said.

But attitudes change, and policies change. Official racial categories were altered nine times in the past 10 U.S. census tabulations, Omi pointed out. Self-identities change, too, as in the case of a 27-year-old Ohio-born man living as a member of a German-ancestry family who changed his self-selected census identity from "white" to "Chicano" after he spent time with his mother's family in Mexico.

Race and ethnicity are more a matter of perception than reality, Omi suggested. Media portrayals of American Indians in more romantic images (compared to old cowboy movies) in recent years led to a self-selected 25 percent increase in the Indian population between 1980 and 1990. A mere wording change in the 1990 census form produced a whopping 6,000 percent increase in those who call themselves Cajuns.

The director of NCI's center, Dr. Harold Freeman, asked whether younger Americans are more willing than their elders to accept multiracial concepts. Generally yes, replied Omi, but many variables come into play. For example, a study of attitudes in two California high schools, one with a primarily white enrollment and one with a racially diverse enrollment, showed contrasts. In the white school, students showed much greater freedom in selecting offbeat lifestyles and attire — such as "rappers" or "cowboys" — than the white students in the diverse-race school, who probably felt more confined by their racial identity as perceived by others, he said.

Dr. Harold Freeman

There has been a movement to create a multiracial census category. But leading civil rights organizations opposed the multiracial category, fearing it would diminish their numbers and undermine the "protected status" of non-whites. In response, the OMB told the Census Bureau to allow multiracial Americans in 2000 to "mark one or more" racial categories when identifying themselves.

While it is impossible to define racial categories that are valid, measurable and reliable over time, "we simply cannot dispense with the use of racial and ethnic categories," Omi concluded. Without categories it would be impossible to monitor racial inequality and discrimination in society — for example, racial "profiling" by police or bias in the issuance of home-buyer loans.

Americans should acknowledge that classifications are imprecise and "unscientific" while also recognizing that some form of evolving and "common sense" classification is needed to track trends and discriminatory patterns, he said.

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