Why should the State and Federal Government collect data on race?

When I was at the Social Security Office getting a replacement for my card, I asked the teller whether my ethnicity was in the database she was taping into. She gave me a wry grin and said, “Honey, we know everything. We even know who your parents are.” I chuckled and asked her to prove it. And sure enough, she told me not only my ethnicity but the names of both my parents.

It doesn’t bother me that the federal government knows who my parents are. Who cares. What I take exception to is the federal government collecting data on race/ethnicity at any point in a citizen’s life whether it be at birth or every decade when the U.S Census Bureau bombards our mailboxes.

Just a decade after Martin Luther King’s death, the programs that his “I have a Dream” speech inspired began to breakdown. *Bakke * and *Gratz v. Bollinger * combined with the recent Parents v. Seattle School District provided the final death knell to the spirit of programs aimed to specifically help blacks and other minorities.

An argument frequently used against these programs is that race isn’t a useful construct or that it doesn’t have scientific meaning. Also, opponents of these programs seem to embrace a view that we should live in a colorblind society where the best qualified person gets the job or opportunity without regard to race or ethnicity.

On the flip side, the federal government and, if you live in Michigan, Vital Statistics collect data on race that are routinely used by State legislatures to dilute the black, largely democratic vote by gerrymandering. The public nature of the data is also unsettling. There is nothing preventing businesses or individuals from using this data to solely determine the racial make-up of a locale, further contributing to the growing segregation problem in the United States. The U.S State and Federal governments report crimes using race without consent.

If we are living in a colorblind society, why should the federal government continue to collect and dispense data on what race? What specific need is there to record the race of a criminal and make that data public? This is a growing concern of mine. If we greatly attentuate programs that help minorities under the basis that race is irrelevant, then the government should cease collecting and disseminating information about race that are used to the social detriment of minorities.

So I guess my question is exactly the title. If race does not matter or exist, should the government collect and dessiminate data to public on race? If the answer is Yes, I’m curious as to whether it is possible to live in a “colorblind” where such system exists.

Your thoughts?

  • Honesty

I don’t think that the argument is that race isn’t a “useful construct”, it’s that it’s a social construct. And, as a social construct, it can do and has done considerable harm to society.

I’m generally supportive of getting the government out of the race monitoring business. I’d be a little cautious, though, as we’re not all that far from the bad old days of legal segregation. But we should look at these programs and see whether they make sense on an individual basis. I can’t see any reason for the Social Security office to know what “race” I am.

I don’t think race or ethnicity data should be collected, period. I refuse to answer that sort of information for the census (illegal, but rarely enforced), employer forms (non-mandatory, but they’re required to ask), or polls.

Any good purpose for using race/ethnicity can equally use economic data. Legislative redistricting should only use the number of residents and no other data.

I don’t like answering gender or religion questions either, but they’re less common.

Why shouldn’t the government make records of what race people are? I can think of only two reasons.

1 - If the government wasn’t recording what race people were, nobody would be able to figure it out on their own. So by recording this information, the government is making racism possible.

2 - The government shouldn’t waste its money on trivial problems and there are no racial issues in the United States so people’s race is not something important enough to keep records about.

I don’t think either of these positions is going to stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

The concept of belonging to a race should be eliminated.

The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race, absolutely beginning with the government. A constant reminder that such a category exists is divisive, even if one option for the category is to opt out of answering it. Moreover there is no reason for such categories unless there is a substantive and definable difference, and the effect of efforts to define those differences is equally divisive.

On this point Justice Roberts is right and Justice Blackmun was wrong.

Of course they could. They do it every minute of every day. Just because race is a social construct doesn’t meant that it isn’t real.

Of course, the government failing to record such information would not actually stop racial discrimination, it would merely make it more difficult to discover when actual discrimination was occurring. A person denied a job or a home or a loan would still be at the mercy of the employer, landlord, seller, or lender who chose to discriminate, but it would be much more difficult to discover which employers, landlords or realtors or lenders were actually discriminating by race. I am not sure that “If we don’t acknowledge its existence it won’t exist” actually works.

I know John. That’s exactly my point.

Then what does it mean? What does being of the same race mean?

Let’s look at what can happen when the government doesn’t officially record ethnic/racial information….

Japan, by having no official census data on Japan’s racial make-up, Japan can claim that there is only one race in Japan (Japanese) and therfore Japan cannot by definition have racism, and therefore need not implement anti-racial discrimination laws (as it is required to do under UN agreements).

Sounds far-fetched to you? Have a read of the link below.


Being of a certain race means being treated as if you’re a certain race, I suppose.

To echo tomndebb. The only way to fight racism is to expose it. The only way to expose it is to keep data on how folks of different races are treated.

I think the problem with the government collecting data on race is that they then have a tendency to make broad assumptions about people, based on that data. For instance, when my husband was a freshman at our state university, he was told he had to go to a Hispanic Assimilation counseling session as part of registration. He had already managed to assimilate pretty well, considering he was born here in the US and doesn’t even speak Spanish. He found it pretty offensive the the university assumed he would have special needs handling college, based on his last name ending in a Z.

I agree, but you have to understand that typical argument against programs that helped minorities overcome the burden of racism has been that we should aim for the colorblind society. I think this is horseturds but I won’t hijack my own thread.

Does anyone agree at all with the government’s actions? What about crime statistics? Do you believe criminals should have their race/ethnicity recorded?

  • Honesty

That indicates that there are problems with the way the data is used, but that’s not necessarily an indictment against collecting it.

Call me crazy, but I find demographic information useful when studying public health disparities. That data wouldn’t exist without the government collecting it.

And those who push the delusional idea that we live in a colorblind society are probably the most against collecting racial data. When there’s no evidence that discrimination is occuring because there’s no data on race, that helps–not hurts–their cause.

It means whatever people want it to mean. If enough people want it to mean the same thing (which is usually the case) it becomes a stereotype.

Blacks are lazy, Asians are nerds, Native Americans are alcoholics, and White people are just fine and dandy (unless they’re poor, then they’re trash).

Maybe, but if it wasn’t collected, there would be no opportunity for it to be abused.

That is true. I’m actually not opposed to it being collected in, say, the census, but there are a lot of situations where I think it is collected rather arbitrarily, and that seems counter-productive to me.

It would be possible to collect that data without assigning it to specific individuals. The OP was mostly alarmed with what the state knew about him, not that the state knew there were X number of people who were the same race as he is.

Good point…I think that’s what bothered my husband about it, as well. He wasn’t necessarily opposed to assimilation counseling being offered at our university…what he didn’t like was that they pinpointed him as fitting into a certain demographic, and then stereotyped him accordingly.

If the university wants to look at their Hispanic population overall, and decides that there are enough people of Hispanic background that might benefit from such a program, then that’s fine. Send an e-mail to everyone letting them know about it, and they can decide if they need or want it, just like any other service on campus.


Yes to the fact its a delusional idea; No to the idea that they are the people against collecting racial data. The individuals calling for a colorblind society are usually white males who reject Affirmative Action programs on the grounds that it puts them with equal footing with minorities and women. Whites will never accept that the promise engraved inside the Statue of Liberty is a promise to Eastern and European male immigrants. It was never and never has been for us. It is a point that blacks cannot convey to whites and an idea that whites fail to grasp. To whites, the lack of relative achievement among blacks in America is because their own culture and choosing not because of detrimental state and federal policies.

  • Honesty