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April 30, 2008

racial classification as an illustration of complexity in government

I've spent the last two days helping to advise the government on the design of background questions that will accompany the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a test-like survey of American kids. The background questions are about demographics and students' experiences in and out of school. They help researchers to interpret and explain trends and gaps in the academic performance of our students.

The process for designing and administering the assessment is complex. It exemplifies the moral and practical complexity of government, and makes me wonder whether governance could be simpler. (I'm not sure that it could be.)

Take the example of how to categorize people by race and ethnicity. In the 1990s, people who considered themselves "multiracial" started lobbying for a separate category on the Census and other official data-collections. There were some objections, for instance, by people who didn't want to reduce the count of African Americans because that would affect policies regarding legislative districts. Believe it or not, the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) contracted with my colleagues and friends at the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy to decide what to do. OMB recognized that the problem was basically moral, not empirical. My colleagues recommended that respondents be allowed to check as many categories as they liked. There would be no "multiracial" category, but researchers could construct it by counting all the respondents who checked more than one box.

That became federal policy, which means that NAEP must now use a racial/ethnic identity survey that allows respondents to "check all that apply. But that leaves many questions:

♦ Who should answer the questionnaire: students, parents, or educators?
♦ When should it be answered (e.g., while taking a test, or at some other time)?
♦ Must students who have already been categorized now be recategorized according to the new scheme, or can they be "grandfathered in"?
♦ How many separate racial and ethnic categories should be offered? What should they be called (e.g., Hispanic or Latino)?
♦ How quickly must the new scheme be implemented?
♦ How should trends in educational performance be calculated and reported after any changes in methodology? For instance, it has been proposed to separate Asians from Pacific Islanders. Historically, Asians perform much better on the NAEP (on average). Separating the groups will therefore boost Asians' scores and create a bigger gap, especially between Asians and African Americans and Latinos. The impact of the change, however, will be small. Should the trends in performance be reported without comment, with a huge caveat to discourage the public from paying attention, or not reported at all?

Those questions are hard enough, but there is another layer of issues about who decides. The NAEP itself can't do anything; it's just a survey. People have to make changes. The people involved include the National Assessment Governing Board (a politically appointed lay panel); its staff; the National Center for Education Statistics (a federal bureau); the Educational Testing Service, a private contractor that has the contract to write the items; states, which have much discretion about how to administer the NAEP; and teachers and school administrators, who will not change their behavior without some mixture of incentives, penalties, persuasion, and training--most of which the federal government cannot offer. Authors of reports about NAEP also have choices to make about how to present results. As a result, hundreds or even thousands of people are involved in discussing how to implement the OMB's rule for the NAEP.

Matters would be easier if we did not collect data about race and ethnicity. But I happen to think that such data is important for reasons of justice. Matters would be simpler--but not better--if we lived in a dictatorship or a highly centralized national bureaucracy. Matters would be easier within a corporation, although the private sector would not produce consistent data, which is a primary objective of the NAEP.

These tradeoffs among efficiency, rigor, responsiveness, and participation are built into our democracy. The amount of work is discouraging, but participants seem to be motivated by ethical principles and are sophisticated about research. Is this kind of system as good as it could be?

April 30, 2008 7:22 PM | category: none



The Racial and Ethnic classification of Americans is nothing more than institutionalized racism and must be ended. The United States of America has been known as a country of rugged individualism based on individual freedom and liberty. Why has America become a country obsessed with classifying its citizens into different racial and ethnic sub-groups?

The only groups that actively support the continued collection of racial and ethnic data are big government bureaucrats and "racial and ethnic special interest groups” that also happen to receive significant funding from the federal government. These organizations argue that identifying people by race and ethnicity is necessary in order to redress some past injustice and that the federal government must continue to collect and use this information in order to set up special racial and ethnic programs, affirmative action quotas and other set-asides for these groups, some of whom consist of new immigrants, illegal aliens and non-citizens. Nothing can be further from the truth. In a country where we can no longer ask people what religion they are, what their party affiliation is or what their sexual orientation is, why are we still asking them about their racial and ethnic background?

Americans are beginning to realize that racial and ethnic identification is more a matter of personal choice than anything else. In the 2000 Census, seven million American citizens refused to place themselves into a single category by refusing to describe themselves as only white, black, Asian, Latino or any one of the other specific categories listed, because they were of mixed race. Attempts by the government to create a “mixed race” box for the 2000 Census was met with resistance by racial and ethnic special interest groups like the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, because they feared that a mixed-race box could pose a danger to the justification for their existence. The fuzzier such racial and ethnic categories become, the harder it will be for these racial and ethnic special interest groups and the government to traffic in them. If a mixed-race category were to be added, every brown-skinned person of mixed race registered in this category would shrink the government’s official count of Blacks, Latinos, Asians or American Indians, eventually reducing their political influence and ultimately the amount of money these groups receive from the federal government, which amounts to approximately $185 billion a year.

Through the mandated collection and use of racial and ethnic specific information, more and more of American taxpayers’ hard earned money is being routinely distributed to these racial and ethnic special interest groups at the expense of all other Americans who may or may not be members of these groups. Through executive orders, congressional legislation, affirmative action programs, racial set-asides, quotas and other programs based solely on race and ethnicity, our federal government is playing the key role that pits one racial and ethnic group against another, which could eventually lead to our destruction as a country.

Rather than helping a diverse population become assimilated and united as one nation, the Federal government is doing what the Nazi government of Germany did in the 1930’s and 40’s; creating government supported institutionalized racism by the intentional classification of it’s citizens by race and ethnicity.

With the support of racial and ethnic special interest groups, our federal government seems to view our citizens not just as Americans, but rather as “pawns” in some social science experiment to be classified and separated into different racial or ethnic sub-groups for some unknown purpose. By mandating the classification of Americans into specific racial and ethnic sub-groups, the federal government and the advocates of “diversity” are actually perpetuating institutionalized racism and keeping Americans divided. Maybe the real purpose of collecting this data is to justify the continuing flow of government money to these racial and ethnic special interest groups.

If we want to help poor Americans escape poverty, get better health care, find a job or get a good education, why should it matter what their race or ethnic background is? The answer is: It should not! Americans need to come together as members of one country and remember that we are all individual Americans, regardless of race or ethnic background. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired a nation when he voiced his dream for a color-blind nation, a nation in which people would be judged by the content of their characters, "not the color of their skin." The answer to this government encouraged racism is the concept of Liberty with a limited, constitutional government that is devoted to the protection of individual rights rather than the claims of different racial and ethnic special interest groups. Where Liberty is present, individual achievement and competence are rewarded, not people’s skin color or ethnicity.

I will support legislation barring the federal government from the collection of racial and ethnic information about the American people and/or the classification of American citizens by race and ethnicity, including the collection of census information. Exceptions should be made for law enforcement, hospitals and medical research purposes.

I will also support legislation that bans affirmative action programs, racial set-asides, quotas and any other programs that give special preferences based on race and ethnicity.

Candidate for Congress
New York’s 20th Congressional District

May 4, 2008 5:41 PM | Comments (2) | posted by John Wallace

Race was used everywhere as an official category in early American history, governing who could marry, who could immigrate, who could enlist in the military and serve as an officer, and who could be enslaved. Today, racial self-identification is always voluntary, and very little official use can be made of the results. Under Supreme Court decisions, it is now illegal to provide a scholarship at a public university for minority students, even if the funding source is private; or to use race as a tie-breaker in assignment to public schools. Quotas and set-asides are strictly illegal. Racial self-identification is used in research and evaluation, to track our treatment of people. That seems necessary to me.

May 5, 2008 6:37 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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