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Stanford Report, January 30, 2002

Demographer speaks out on abuse of Census data, issues raised by new 'mutiracial' category


More than a dozen government agencies rely on racial data from the Census to help serve minorities. On the flip side, the government has, in the past, used the race data for more unseemly pursuits.

During Friday's installment of the Ethics at Noon lecture series, Professor Matthew Snipp, a demographer in the Sociology Department who also serves on the Census Bureau's Race and Ethnic Advisory Committee, noted that some U.S. residents are suspicious of the Census, arguing it has the potential for an Orwellian kind of abuse. Snipp cited one example of how such data can be used for dubious purposes.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the government relied heavily on Census data to identify and detain people of Japanese heritage living in the United States.

More recently, some Arab American organizations lobbied to include an Arab-race category on the 2000 census. "If the Arab American groups had been successful in making their case to have this information included, you have to wonder where we would be after Sept. 11," Snipp said. "What sorts of uses would be made with that information?"
Indeed, the Census comes replete with ethical dilemmas, many of which have become more tangled since 2000, when U.S. residents were permitted to choose more than one race in identifying themselves. Some people oppose gathering racial data altogether. And it's not only conservative groups who take this position.

"The debate over whether we should collect racial information involves some odd bedfellows," Snipp said. "There's a liberal, leftist, post-modern camp that argues that race is simply a constructed thing, and why can't we just deconstruct it by ceasing to acknowledge that it exists. And there are some traditional conservatives who see it as an unnatural and unnecessary source of social division. [The Washington Post columnist] George Will has written a couple of editorials to that effect."

Meanwhile, the addition of a multiracial category has introduced a new set of complexities (and migraines) for government officials. The debate over the multiracial option grew more heated about a decade ago. Some of the most vocal proponents for the category were interracial-family advocates. One group, called Reclassify All Children Equally (RACE), argued that in interracial households in which, say, one parent is black and the other is white, the Census forced children to identify either with the race of the mother or the race of the father.

"[RACE] argued it was a painful decision that created family tensions, and they resented it deeply," Snipp said.

Meanwhile, the legal standing of the multiracial category could be challenged, Snipp said. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has taken the position that anybody who identifies with a given racial group is subject to the same protections afforded to that group.

"It's kind of an interesting application of the old one-drop rule, although this time for protecting rather than persecuting," Snipp said.

The next installment of Ethics at Noon is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 25, and will feature Michele Landis Dauber, an assistant professor of law, who will speak on the ethics of the vast governmental assistance programs for Sept. 11 victims and their families compared to the assistance available for people whose losses stem from other causes.

For a schedule of other upcoming Ethics at Noon events, contact Ben Quest at (650) 723-0997 or at; or contact Dana Howard at