When Will the Census Stop Collecting Race Data?

In a nation where we're increasingly identifying as "mixed race," categories have to stop meaning anything at some point.
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In a nation where we're increasingly identifying as "mixed race," categories have to stop meaning anything at some point.
Transcription of census data using a keyboard punch circa 1940. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Transcription of census data using a keyboard punch circa 1940. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

These are strange times for the race-conscious. As you’ve probably heard, America’s white majority is literally dying off, according to the latest Census data. Last year, for the first time ever, more non-Hispanic whites died than were born in the U.S. Whites still make up 64 percent of the population, but immigration and higher birth rates among pretty much every other demographic category mean whites will likely become a minority somewhere around 2050. In fact, most babies born in America are already non-white.

Knowing that African Americans make up 13 percent of the population makes it pretty clear that something's off about the fact that they also make up about 40 percent of all Americans in prison.

Who will be the new majority? It’s going to be very hard to say, because the fastest-growing racial category measured by the Census is actually "mixed race." As the Los Angeles Times reports, "roughly 15 percent of new marriages were interracial in 2010, compared with 6.7 percent in 1980." (Compared with practically zero in 1967. Happy anniversary, Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriage!) OK, the number of Americans officially calling themselves "multi-racial" is still relatively small, but remember it's only been a handful of years since the Census started allowing folks to choose that category. Clearly, there are plenty more who fit it, from people like the half-Chinese half-Egyptian student quoted in the L.A. Times story to "Cablinasian" golfer Tiger Woods to our half-black President.

Keeping count of how many people belong to particular racial and ethnic groups has its uses. Knowing that African Americans make up 13 percent of the population makes it pretty clear that something's off about the fact that they also make up about 40 percent of all Americans in prison, for instance. Such numbers can also tell us when certain groups are being particularly affected by diseases, or mortgage defaults, or a million other things.

But how much good will it do anyone to know how many Chinese-Egyptian-Americans get diabetes every year compared to, say, Laotian-Irish-Americans? Once we start talking about a nation of millions of mixed-race people, will racial categories even mean anything any more? Sure, that day is a long way off. But it does seem like it's on its way.

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