When Identity Isn’t Black, White or Other: The New York Newsday Interview with Nampeo McKenney

By Lise Funderburg

New York Newsday

Q. My father’s black and Native American, my mother’s white. Currently, the U.S. Census acknowledges four racial groups: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black and White. What box should I check on the Census form?
A. It’s really up to you. Our concept of race is based upon self-identification. We ask persons to report one race, but if they cannot check one box, they do have the option of marking the “Other” box and writing in more than one racial group, or mixed, or biracial or whatever they like.
Q. How is that information recorded?
A. If a person marks mixed, interracial, or multiracial and gives no racial designation, [he or she] stays in the “Other” box. If they say White/American Indian or Black/White, we take the first race reported and the person is classified according to that.
Q. So what’s the point?
A. We’re trying to provide data for a variety of reasons, such as legislation, program planning and to meet the guidelines of the [Office of Management and Budget] Directive on Racial and Ethnic Standards, which require that we place everyone we can into one of the racial groups.
Q. So why are you considering adding a multiracial box for the year 2000?
A. OMB is conducting a review of how we classify persons of multiracial background. The Census Bureau, as part of the review process, is conducting research. But we really don’t know [yet what will change].
Q. You have said that the Census’ definition of race is “a social definition.” What does that mean?
A. Social definitions are based upon what is generally accepted by our society. It’s a definition that does not conform to any biological definition — if there is a biological definition — or anthropological definition. It can change over time; it can be based upon one’s perception of one’s own race; it can be influenced by the way other people perceive that person’s race. This makes it much more complex to capture and report information. So when we talk about “multirace,” one of the issues we have to be concerned about is: Is this a new social definition emerging?
Q. But aren’t we all multiracial?
A. Certainly a large number of us have some mixture in our backgrounds, if we go back far enough. But it’s difficult to talk about new concepts of race without considering the history of this country and the way that race has been defined here for long periods of time. That has a profound effect upon the definitions we’re still wrestling with. The discriminatory history of our country — where, for example, persons with one drop of black blood were always considered black — is one reason why this is so difficult.
Q. Have you tested the multi-racial box?
A. We’re in the early stages of research. We have done a very small survey of about 300 households where we included a category on “Multirace.” This was not a test, but an attempt to see how people identify with the category.
Those who identified as “Multirace,” about three-fifths were Hispanic, or persons who said either that they were just Hispanic, or Hispanic and white, or Hispanic and black. So one concern we have about the category is if it were to pick up a large number of Hispanics. . . we have to ask if this is the purpose of the question.
Q. In other words, the number of Hispanics in the United States would suddenly drop. What do Hispanics stand to lose if a multirace category appears on the census?
A. We’re not looking at who’s to lose. We’re really looking at how well the question works. Do people understand the question? Is it misleading?
Q. But the impact could be significant.
A. Yes, it could. For instance, if we look at the American Indian population, we know that over half of the marriages involving American Indians involve a non-American Indian. In light of that, some members of that community have expressed concern about a multiracial classification.
Some representatives of black organizations have expressed concern also. They perceive that it could have adverse effects upon the counts of the black population.
Q. In other words, if a multiracial box lowered the Census numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, this could limit race-based federal entitlements and anti-discrimination programs.
A. Yes, or affect the redistricting lines [for voting]. That’s one of the reasons we need to conduct the research — because we really need to look at those issues across a broad spectrum of the population.
Q. Wouldn’t a category that simply says “multiracial” be a catch-all for people who may have nothing in common?
A. There are researchers who raise that same issue. On the other hand, there are researchers who strongly disagree and indicate that, just as with blacks or American Indians who have suffered discrimination, persons of mixed racial parentage also suffer from certain types of discrimination, [which could] affect some of their social and economic characteristics, too.
Q. It seems to me that you’re in an unenviable position. On one side, the census may be currently promoting racial stereotypes that were inappropriate to begin with. On the other, to change the way the census classifies people by race might do harm again. How can this be solved?
A. You’ve asked a very difficult question. As we look at the race question, we also look at the basic purposes of the data. The data are now used to address past discriminatory practices: to make sure that there’s a fairer distribution of funds, fairer mortgage-lending practices, and that fair housing practices are monitored and enforced. Overall, the race question is used to see that the practices used today are equitable.
One reason for the review that the OMB is undergoing now, really, is to take a look at the standards that have been developed and to see whether they are still applicable to today’s society. They have had a number of public hearings and asked people to comment on the issue.
Q. What are some of the groups lobbying for change and what have they asked for?
A. Groups from different areas of the country. Some suggest that we just have a multiracial category. Others say we should have a multiracial classification and then ask people to give specific races, and then others say we should ask people to mark all that apply. We’ve had other persons who recommended a category for just mulatto or mixed.
Q. Do you think racial categories have any validity?
A. The research supports that they do. One finds that race can influence many social and economic characteristics: It has a high correlation with residential patterns, voting patterns and with some economic variables.
Now, I certainly will say that sometimes race is used as a determining factor to explain health conditions or other situations where, really, economic class or other factors are more important. Or it might be that the racial data need to be cross-classified by economic data in order to give a fuller picture of what is actually taking place. Sometimes race is overused in explaining events or what’s out there.
Q. Is there a possibility that we may at some point evolve beyond racial categories?
A. I certainly hope so. And when race is no longer an important variable, an important classifier in our society, then I would assume the question would be dropped from the census.