The Race Categories on the U.S. Census: Representations of False Consciousness

By: Therese Beaudreault

In Part I of this paper, I will attempt to deconstruct the race categories on the U.S. Census. I begin by exploring the historical evolution of the race categories. The evolution of the categories reflects the historical moment, including the prevailing ideologies and beliefs of the time. The race categories reflect a history of slavery, racism, and xenophobia, but they also reflect an attempt by the people to make demands for political power, visibility, and equality.

I will then examine the function of the race categories. The race data collected from the race categories on the Census were used as a tool of discipline and oppression over people of color, but the civil rights era transformed the usage of the data from a mechanism of subjugation to a mechanism for power, equality, and liberation. With the passage of civil rights laws, discrimination on the basis of race became illegal. Tracking discrimination on the basis of race meant tracking race, and the Census race data became instrumental in this objective. The advent of the Multiracial Category Movement (MCM) shifted the debate about the usage of Census race data for civil rights enforcement purposes to the question of race categories as a forum for identity expression. The debate about the importance of identity expression versus civil rights compliance monitoring still rages.

My next task will be to unpack the complexity of identity as it relates to race. I will attempt to explore several questions such as, what is identity? How does race factor into identity? What effect do the race categories have on the national consciousness? Should we care if the state sanctions our identities? I will try to make sense of the process by which identities are created, as well as asserted, vis-à-vis the state.

In Part II, I will argue that the race categories are inherently and symbolically dangerous because they come from a racist history and orientation. They can never fully liberate people of color from oppression because they represent a web of oppression themselves.

I will propose an elimination of the categories from the Census and explore the ramifications of such a proposition. I will distinguish my argument from that of proponents of colorblindness. I will attempt to address questions such as whether it is naïve to think that taking away the “means of critical discourse,” the statistical proof, will be a step toward eliminating the problem of race and racism? Will doing this actually “foreclose the very recognition of racial disparity”? Is it possible to continue the fight against racism without recognizing race on the Census? I will also address some suggestions for reform within the legal system to accompany an elimination of race categories on the Census, as well as some ideas for cultural and identity transformation.

While this paper will cohere around the race categories on the Census, the discussion really represents broader, more general inquiries: how do we shift our perceptions about race in America? What are the best ways to do that? How do we eliminate racism? This paper will touch on some of these questions, but I certainly do not want to suggest that there is an easy answer to the intensely complex, systemic, institutional, cultural-legal-political-social-historical problem of racism. I want to merely dare to question our assumptions about the efficacy of our current approach to the problem of racism and suggest that perhaps there is another way.

Download the full paper: The Race Categories On The U.S. Census: Representations of False Consciousness

To download a Powerpoint presentation of the paper: Race & The Law