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Mixed feelings about mixed-race census option

The 2010 census, which hit mailboxes this month, is causing scholars and mixed-race people to debate, for just the second time in the count’s history, the dilemma of whether or not to check multiple “race” boxes.

One Stanford professor, Michele Elam, the director of the Program in African and African-American Studies, wrote in a recent op-ed in The Huffington Post that people should consider “thinking twice, but checking once,” since the goal of the census is to diagnose the resources the federal government should offer.

Elam said that the question of whether or not to check more than one box is not about meeting some level of “mixedness.”

“[The question is] a recognition that ‘race’ is and has always been a broad political category that has had and continues to have real impacts,” Elam wrote in e-mail to The Daily, “and most important, in this context, is being invoked to help track inequities based on race and to distribute economic resources.”

Matthew Snipp, the director of the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity program, also commented on the effects of checking more than one box. According to Snipp, who has been involved in the census since the 1980s, census data is used to allocate $400 billion per year.

Snipp said information collected about racial categories is used to guard civil rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed for minorities to have fair representation in congressional districts.

“Race is important in determining whether congressional districts have been racially gerrymandered or not,” Snipp said.

He cited an instance of how racial composition can affect the gerrymandering of an area.

“For example, if there was an area that was predominantly Latino, lines can be drawn so that the community can elect a Latino congressman,” Snipp said. “However, [lines] can also be drawn so that it makes it nearly impossible for the people to elect a Latino representative.”

As determined by the Department of Justice in the 2000 Census, if one were considered a member of a protected minority group and also a majority group, then for civil rights enforcement purposes, the person is counted as the minority.

“If you were black and white and you checked both boxes,” Snipp said, “then you’re just black.”

Protected minority groups are defined as any group that has been historically discriminated against. The primary groups are Asian-Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, American Indians and Alaska natives, Snipp said.

Debate arises, however, as more people of two different minority races emerge.

“For example, if you’re trying to draw a legislative district and it has a large concentration of Hispanics, Asians and half-Hispanic and half-Asian people, then how do you count those?”

“It’s a rare thing and it’s never been a problem in the past, but going into the future it might be,” he added.

Drawing boundaries may be harder than ever. In the case of trying to achieve racial balance within a district, it may be hard to determine which category mixed race people should belong.

Lisa James ’13, who is from Monroe, Mass., and checks both the African-American and Caucasian boxes, noted her own dilemma. According to her, it may not be the best option to just choose one, as Elam had suggested, since she identifies with both ethnicities.

“At home, because I live in a predominantly white community, people just consider me white,” she said. “But coming here, I didn’t realize how much society is going to also look at me and just be like, ‘You’re black,’ even though I’m both.”

Currently, the Census allows people to determine for themselves to which race they identify.

“Race is so much more complicated than just a box,” said Michaela Raikes ’10, a Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity major. “That’s the hard part of the census. It means a lot of different things to a lot of people. It’s hard to just check one box and understand that that’s representing who you are.”

Snipp said people should be check as many boxes as they choose, as long as they realize the policy implications of the decision.

Elam acknowledged the controversy between generations of the “mixed race movement,” between interracial parents — whose marriages were first legal in the United States in 1967 after Loving v. Virginia — and their “now-grown” children, who don’t always agree on how to represent mixed race.

But Elam remained firm in her beliefs to “think twice, but check once.”

“If we wring our hands in ontological angst over the ‘Gee, what am I?’ and, ‘Why can’t my own complexities be represented here?’ questions,” she said, “then we [miss] the larger practical aims of the census.”

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