Friday, March 17, 2000

Census adds choices for race data

Individuals can specify makeup as they see fit

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Chris Kelley (right) with children Jonas and Britten.
| ZOOM |
        When Chris Kelley fills out her census form this week, she'll write multicultural on the blank line to describe her two biracial offspring. It's a welcome change from the “black, white or other” choice she usually sees on forms.

        Ms. Kelley said her write-in choice more appropriately reflects her children's heritage.

        “You hate to grow up being considered an "other.' It makes you feel like an alien or something,” said Ms. Kelley of Bond Hill, who is white. Her children's father is African-American.

        Census 2000 forms arriving at households this week for the first time give mixed-race residents the option of marking one or more racial categories. They can also create a separate racial category.

        In the past, someone who was of both black and white ancestry could check off only one choice. The Census Bureau said respondents who check combinations such as black and white; white and Native American; or white and Asian-American, will be counted as a minority.

        The change has created a dispute between supporters of minority groups who fear losing federal funding, who are asking people to mark one box; and mixed-race residents, who want to reflect their ethnic heritage.

        Melanie Campbell, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition on Black Voter Participation, urges biracial people to check “black” on their census forms.

        “For the purposes of our political power and clearly monitoring civil rights enforcement, they need to check one box and that box is "black,'” Ms. Campbell said. “The purpose of the census is not about your heritage or your lineage; it's about money and political power. We need to get the word out.”

        The Census Bureau says race is key to implementing funding for federal programs — which is expected to be at least $182 billion based on Census 2000 data — and is used to help states determine legislative redistricting. Racial data is also used for the research behind policy decisions, and to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act by local jurisdictions.

        Milton Hinton, president of the NAACP Cincinnati chapter, said the civil rights group isn't taking sides, but “you ought to know what some of the consequences might be for you and your people” before responding to questions of race.

        “The potential is there to have devastatiing effects upon services to the black community” if fewer people mark “black.”

        The Census Bureau, which says the additional choices reflect the country's growing diversity, is leaving the choice to respondents, said Mary Groen, census office manager for the city of Cincinnati.

        State Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, said he has major concerns about how the Census Bureau plans to analyze returns from people who check multiple racial boxes or create separate categories.

        “I think that will dilute the count for African-Americans,” Mr. Mallory said. “I have a lot of questions about how the census numbers are going to be compiled in terms of race. But I still want to stress the importance of filling out the forms and sending them back.”

        Karla Irvine, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, said deciding which box to check can be tricky.

        “It's a difficult subject because you can understand the desire of individuals to state who they are. People are such combinations of things,” said Ms. Irvine. Her nonprofit Mount Au burn organization investigates and works to eliminate housing discrimination.

        Some groups say they welcome the new racial choices offered by the Census Bureau.

        Sharon Hardin, director of marketing and key initiatives for the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati, said the Census Bureau told her group that federal dollars will be distributed by poverty level in communities — not the racial makeup.

        “It was a concern of ours but we're trusting that what they're telling us is true,” said Ms. Hardin. “We need to know how our country is made up.”

        Though respondents have more choices this time around, the Census Bureau expects few people to check off more than one race.

        Dr. Kenneth Ghee, associate professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati, agrees.

        “The reality is 75 to 80 percent of the population will still check black or white,” Dr. Ghee said. “The majority of biracial people ... are going to identify with the culture in which they grew up.”

        Ms. Kelley, assistant director of the James E. Biggs Early Childhood Education Center in Covington, said she plans to create a separate “multiracial” category on the census form when answering the question about her children's ethnic background. She wants her children — Jonas, 22, and daughter Britten, 18 — to be proud of their “rich” heritage.

        “I've always considered my kids really fortunate to represent two races,” said Ms. Kelley, “I feel that it gives them perspective that folks of a single race don't have.

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