Racial Classifiers Fight Amongst Themselves

I can't stop myself from commenting on an Inside Higher Ed article from last week titled "Rethinking Racial Classifications".

An Education Department plan to change the way colleges collect and report data on their students' racial and ethnic backgrounds is attracting growing criticism.
The issue is with this new algorithm:
Colleges would ask students first if they are Latino or Hispanic, with just a yes/no answer. Then the second question would provide a choice of races: American Indian, Asian, African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or white.
Believe it or not, this method makes sense in the world of Your Federal Government. Because, by regulation, "Hispanic" (or "Latino") is an ethnicity, and that's the only ethnicity they bother to track. One's race, on the other hand, is considered to be independent from one's ethnicity, and the five named above are the standard "important" ones demanded by regulation. We've blogged about this before in greater detail.

Ah, so you're thinking (being the sensible person that you are): it's a darn good idea someone's demanding a rethink on this! The whole exercise is divisive, simplistic, and brings back memories of the Jim Crow era, where your genetic makeup was (to put it mildly) the source of the granting and taking away of legal rights and protections. The sooner we can get beyond this sort of nonsense, the better.

And of course, you'd be right. And yet, at the same time, you would be so very very wrong. Because the criticism dealt with in IHE article isn't the kind sensible people make: it's the kind of criticism levelled by higher education bureaucrats. The controversy between them and government bureaucrats will remind you of the dispute between Biefuscu and Lilliput over which end of the soft-boiled egg to crack. You'll be asking: can't, somehow, both sides lose?

For example, C. Anthony Broh, director of research policy for the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, opines that

Philosophically, this format says, 'we care more if you indicate that you are Hispanic than if you indicate you are black or American Indian, etc.' … Separating the identities of Hispanics from other groups is a visual statement that groups are not treated equally in higher education.
One can't help but suspect that Broh could detect invidious "visual statements" in any set of racial/ethnic classification questions; that kind of thing is easy to find when you want to. Broh also alleges that "research" has found that "a two-question format is particularly confusing to the younger Hispanic population."

Sure, that's not demeaning to incoming Hispanic college students; two questions is one too many for them!

Also extensively quoted is Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, assistant vice chancellor for academic research and resources for the California State University System, which is almost certainly not a made-up job position.

She wants to first ask students what their race and ethnicity is, giving them the option of checking multiple boxes. Then she wants to ask students if they have a preference of being identified in a particular way. So a student with a strong ethnic or racial identity can answer the first question completely but also show up statistically in the way that reflects that person's actual life.
But Marsha continues:
"We want to respect the individual," she said. "If you bother to ask them what they are, and then ignore them, it seems less respectful."
Right. The problem here is: this racial/ethnic pigeonholing is all about ignoring individuality in favor of glomming everyone together into statistical groups. Marsha, if you want to "respect the individual", how about—oh, I don't know—treating them as individuals, and not as interchangable members of their ethnic or racial identity?

It's crazy, but it just might work.

Last Modified 2006-12-11 9:16 PM EST