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Census acts on minority concern
Civil rights leaders feared checking more than one racial category would dilute power
By Erika Rosenberg Democrat and Chronicle
(Mar. 19, 2000) -- People of mixed racial backgrounds will be counted in mixed-race categories for most government purposes but counted as minorities when civil rights are at stake, according to officials running the 2000 census.
The federal government recently announced an adjustment -- prompted by concerns from some minority groups -- to its decision allowing people to check more than one box on census forms to describe their race. Census forms were mailed to 150 million households last week as the Census Bureau's decennial count of everyone in America got underway.
Patriece McPeak of Fairport said the adjustment seems to be fair. McPeak, who is Jamaican, has two sons with her husband, who is white.
"It makes sense," McPeak said. "When people look at my boys, they will consider them a minority.'
The government decided to let people check more than one box for the first time in the 210-year history of the census to reflect more accurately America's growing diversity and the increase in intermarriage.
But some groups representing African-Americans, Asians and others expressed concern that the change could dilute the numbers and power of minorities and hamper enforcement of civil rights laws.
The government's compromise was an attempt to address those fears. It means that a person who marks the boxes "white" and "Chinese" will be counted for mostpurposes in a category for white and Chinese people.
There are 63 racial categories, including all possible combinations. The population counts used to draw voting districts will include all of those categories.
But when federal agencies use census data to analyze civil rights complaints, the person who checked the boxes for white and Chinese will be counted as Chinese.
A person marking two minority-group boxes will be counted as part of the group that is making the complaint.
"It's very limited but very important," said Sally Katzen, counselor to the director of the Office of Management and Budget, which made the decision.
Rev. Norvel Goff Sr., president of the Rochester chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the new system is too convoluted.
"We're going into uncharted waters here. How far do we take this?" Goff said.
But he added that people have a right to describe themselves as they like. "I don't know if there's a better way."
People of mixed-race can choose to check only one box if they prefer.
The question of race has always been part of the census, going back to the first one in 1790. The U.S. Constitution originally directed that black slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person and that Native Americans not be counted at all.
The census has reflected America's preoccupation with race, which is similar to European societies' obsession with aristocracy and peasantry, said Alan Turley, a sociology professor at the State University College at Brockport who teaches classes in race and ethnic studies.
And the way the question is asked reflects the history of North America, including the slave trade, colonization by the Spanish and intermarriage, Turley said.
The census form first asks people whether they are of Hispanic origin. Next, respondents check as many out of 15 boxes as apply to describe their race.
The Hispanic question is separate because the American population includes both white and black Hispanics.
Although government leaders believe collecting racial data is critical to enforcing laws and civil rights and equal opportunity, some wonder if the day is near when it will not be necessary.
"I think that that's an aspiration, a goal for the future," Katzen said.
-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 19, 2000