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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop 6 - The Census: Who We Think We Arehomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 6:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript Two:
Race and Ethnicity As Census Categories

Page 123


Confusion over these ill-defined racial categories used in the U.S. eventually led to a reevaluation of the categories in 1977. But for the census, at that point, it's when the Federal Office of Management and Budget acknowledged that the racial categories we used were really, really getting to the point of being meaningless for statistical purposes. Yet we know they still have material effects in how we understand who we are. What do I mean by this?

A good example is when an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control was analyzing infant deaths, infants born from 1983 through 1985, and he found that many infants had a different race on their death certificate than they had on their birth certificate. And as Lawrence Wright has noted, this finding led to a staggering increase in the infant mortality rate of the minority populations. It was 46.9 percent greater for American Indians, 48 percent greater for Japanese Americans, 78.7 percent greater for Filipinos over what had previously been recorded. So researchers in epidemiology and health statistics were saying, "We can't use these categories if people don't know how to use them in any kind of coherent and consistent way, if you're a different race when you're born than when you die." Then that, for scientists, this is a problem.

Those in the social sciences were disturbed about the conflation of race and ethnicity. In fact, what is a race, and what is an ethnicity? [ Don't ] all Americans, of some sense, have an ethnicity? Or do some have ethnicity and some have a race and some have both, and how do we determine the two, and how does an individual determine the two?

So as a result of [President] Clinton's initiative, the Conversation of Race, anthropologists in particular stepped forward to offer a perspective that examined the history and meanings of the use of racial categories. And they concluded that "Racial beliefs constitute myths about the diversity in the human species and about the abilities and behavior of people homogenized into 'racial' categories. The myths," they continued, "fused behavior and physical features together in the public mind, impeding our comprehension of both biological variations and cultural behavior, implying that both are genetically determined. Racial myths," they said, "bear no relationship to the reality of human capabilities and behavior, and scientists today find that reliance on such folk beliefs about human differences in research has led to countless errors."

Epidemiologists joined with the anthropologists and began to say that we needed a much more careful delineation if we were going to use it in health statistics to measure mortality and morbidity rates in various populations in the United States. And some of them even urged the elimination of race as a category for the 2000 census, and that debate is still going on for what might appear on the next census. So the scientists are now—and I say "scientists" as a very sort of broad term, and I include in that anthropologists, epidemiologists, physicians, statisticians, so that's social sciences and natural sciences and physical sciences as well—have begun to say that our popular and public conceptions of race have not been in line with what we do in the census categories, [and] that then those categories get used in so many other aspects of American life, and help to perpetuate distortions about the meaning of race and ethnicity that are quite problematic in the modern period.

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