352. "To Diversity and Beyond." The Weekly Standard (April 30, 2001), p 19.
Even Americans who don't care squat about abstractions such as "race relations" might well be infuriated to learn that - under an order issued by the Clinton White House, which George W. Bush could yet rescind - the U.S. Census is following a deep South tradition: Americans who check both "black" and "white" race boxes on their Census forms are to be counted as 100 percent black. (Other regimes that have followed essentially this system of racial classification are South Africa under Apartheid and Nazi Germany.)
Here's how it works: On their 2000 Census forms Americans were afforded the opportunity to opt out of narrow racial pigeonholes by claiming more than one race. That left the question of how to count such Americans in summary statistics. The Census could have simply reported that X million Americans see themselves as multiracial. But that would have diminished the numbers of minorities, statistics used in plans for school desegregation and in regulatory programs and the allocation of government funds for housing, employment, health, and the environment.
As representative Carrie Meek, a Florida Democrat, explained, "The 'multiracial' category would cloud the count of discrete minorities who are assigned to a lower track in public schools, . . . kept out of certain occupations, and whose progress toward seniority or promotion has been skewered." This is the reason several African-American groups, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, campaigned to urge blacks to mark only one box on their Census forms, as they have a perfect right to do. A $ 1.1 million advertising campaign in California took as its slogan "Check the Black Box." Despite this campaign, some 1.76 million people checked "black" and a second race.
Take Tiger Woods. While I have no idea how he actually marked his Census form, Woods has often refused to be racially boxed in. "Growing up, I came up with this name: I'm a 'Cablinasian,'" he has said, reflecting his Caucasian, black, American Indian, and Thai roots. Woods and millions more Americans are children of inter-marriages. But those who favor identity politics - and the privileges that go with "minority" status - are not to be stopped.
Their first move was to rearrange the data collected by the 1990 Census. This had included the race category "Other," which 9.8 million Americans had chosen. In compiling something called the Modified Age/Race/Sex (MARS) profile, provided to various federal agencies for purposes of allocating funds, the Census dropped "Others" and divided up the 9.8 million people among the racial groups. Next, for the 2000 Census, the bureau abolished the race-neutral "Others" altogether and forced Americans to name their race, although it allowed them to choose more than one.
As a final blow, in a memo known as OMB Bulletin No. 00-02 issued in March 2000, the Clinton White House ordered that all who checked "white" but who also marked another racial category be counted as minorities, at least for purposes of civil rights enforcement.
At issue is how we view ourselves as a nation, and what kind of a society we envision America's becoming. Is it one in which the lines between the races are gradually blurred, as the number of Americans of mixed parentage increases and identity politics retreats? Or is it one in which bright lines differentiating Americans by race are jealously guarded, and those who seek to have a foot in two or more social camps are frowned upon - as Tiger Woods was scolded by Colin Powell for not owning up to his blackness?
I, for one, look toward an American society that increasingly resembles Hawaii, a place rich in blended citizens. In such a country, more and more people would look like the computer composite of a future American featured on a cover of Time magazine several years ago. That composite incorporated characteristics of several races: almond-shaped eyes, a mop of straight, dark hair, and honey-colored skin. Surrounded by such fellow citizens, we would realize that many of our differences are skin deep; that ultimately we all want a free country that respects individual rights, good jobs and a fine education for our children, cleaner politics - and less racial tension.
I am not opposed to helping African Americans compete on an equal footing in the marketplace and elsewhere. However, we should not accomplish this by manipulating national statistics or forcing on people a racial identity they have declined to choose for themselves even though by doing so they forfeit government help.
Changes in our demographic and social categories would help us recognize the full importance of my favorite African-American saying: We came in many ships, but now we ride in the same boat.
Amitai Etzioni teaches sociology at the George Washington University. His book The Monochrome Society has just been published by Princeton University Press.