Every 10 years, the United States Census Bureau collects data to assess American demographics and housing characteristics, among other information. One of the ever-evolving iterations of the U.S. census is the category of race. In 1960, Pew Research Center notes, Americans were able to choose their own race and in 2000, the census changed to allow respondents to choose more than one race to categorize themselves. One of the major proposed changes for racial categories on the 2030 census includes a box for those who identify as Middle Eastern and North African (MENA), who normally have to identify as white since there is no racial/ethnic category for them.
While race has been a longstanding fixture of the demographic data the U.S. government collects on its citizens, some argue that racial categories should be abolished. A Washington Post article explored claims made by some that American society should abandon its practice of racial classifications. The rationale behind this belief: Race is a human-created construct and humans are 99.9% identical based on their genetic makeup, therefore race doesn’t serve any biological purpose.
Opponents of racial classification system argue that Americans should be able to opt out of this system by providing an option respondents can choose like “I do not identify by race.” There are also suggestions that there should be an option to indicate how others identify your race, even if it’s not necessarily how you, as an individual, identify yourself. There are some issues with this type of system if it were to be adopted. Everyone wants to be judged by the “content of their character” and not the color of their skin but the fact of the matter is we live in a society where a person’s race does matter and greatly influences everyday life experiences.
Even if a person doesn’t want to identify themselves by race, race impacts every system and structure in America. Because of discrimination and de facto segregation, our race often determines our home values, the type of neighborhoods we live, and even the quality of our healthcare. Without collecting racial and ethnic data, we will be unable to understand the breadth and depth of societal inequities.
Eliminating the collection of racial data will not eradicate racism; it could be argued that without this data, racial disparities in America will be exacerbated. According to a 2022 U.S. News & World Report and The Harris Poll survey, nearly 25% of respondents said they “did not believe there is systemic racism in America.” Assessing the veracity of this belief requires the collection of data with quantitative data, in particular, being so vital since numbers don’t lie. Being able to see the raw data regarding structures like housing, healthcare, and corporate America can provide detailed evidence of the extent of racial disparities.
Many countries around the world, like France, Germany, Italy and Japan don’t collect race and ethnic data on their citizens. If abolishing racial classifications led to the eradication of racism, then theoretically these countries should not have instances of racism. But choosing not to be categorized by race doesn’t automatically change how people perceive you. Unfortunately, when it comes to the social construction of race, we are all at the mercy of how we are “perceived” by society.
Rather than abolish racial and ethnic classifications, we should constantly be thinking about ways to improve our current categorization system. What can be added or removed from our current system to provide more clarity? We should think about, for example, how practices like lumping all Black people into one ‘Black’ category, neglects the ethnic and cultural differences that make Black American experiences distinct and unique from both first-generation Black experiences and the experiences of Black immigrants.
It is absolutely imperative that the United States continue to collect and assess racial data to better understand the experiences of Americans and to create interventions that address the widening racial disparities. As the popular saying goes, what gets measured gets improved. For equity, justice and liberation to become a reality for all Americans, it is crucial that we continue to evaluate race in a country where people have and continue to be stratified based on their race.