Controversy over Multiracial Forms on Campus

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A new proposal from the U.S. Department of Education would allow students to declare more than one racial category on federal forms. That's great news for multiracial students, who have been clamoring for a better way to identify themselves. But critics of the plan are concerned that it will make it nearly impossible to track academic progress by race.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, in Montana, drug treatment instead of prison for meth addicts.

CHADWICK: First, if you are multi-racial, filling out standardized forms can get complicated. Let's say you're applying to college or for a grant and the application has a section for ethnic background. You're supposed to check one box. Your dad's black and your mom's Japanese. Hmm.

BRAND: Hmm indeed. NPR's Alex Cohen reports that the Department of Education is working on it.

ALEX COHEN reporting:

According to the 2000 census nearly seven million Americans consider themselves multi-racial. University of Texas grad student Aurora Chang-Ross is one of them and she's never liked filling out school forms.

Ms. AURORA CHANG-ROSS (Graduate Student, University of Texas): I always felt very cheated that I couldn't fully disclose the complexity of my racial identity.

COHEN: Her identity is Guatemalan, Chinese and Italian. Chang-Ross says she usually resorts to checking off the box marked Hispanic-Latino on school forms, since that's what most people think she looks like.

Ms. CHANG-ROSS: But in that process I think you really lose, lose something, a bit of yourself.

COHEN: Forcing students to check just one box isn't just unsettling; it goes against federal rules. Almost ten years ago the Office of Management and Budget set guidelines allowing people to check more than one race on all federal forms. This month the Department of Education presented a plan which would let students and faculty check as many boxes as they like from at least six categories: Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, black, Pacific Islander, and white. The Department of Education's Ross Santy.

Mr. ROSS SANTY (Department of Education): Any state or educational institution is free to put in whatever and however many other groups they feel are appropriate, but those are the minimums.

COHEN: Declaring race is one thing, but reporting it is another. According to the new plan, anyone who marks more than one category will be placed in a separate group called multi-racial. To Anne Katahira-Sims, that's a huge mistake. She's the executive director of the Mavin Foundation, a group dedicated to issues affecting people of mixed heritage. She says lumping all multi-racial people together could have dire consequences.

Ms. ANNE KATAHIRA-SIMS (Executive Director, Maven Foundation): Consider a situation in which a college is considering the construction of a resource center for Native American students, say, and as part of their analysis they look at the number of Native American students enrolled in their university to see if there's been an increasing number that would create a demand for such a center.

COHEN: She goes on to say if students once counted as Native American are now considered only as multi-racial, that could lead to the impression there's no need for a Native American center. That's why she says every racial combination should be counted. But that's asking too much of schools, says Ross Santy of the Education Department.

Mr. SANTY: There are permutations where you could be creating as many as 64 different racial and ethnic groups if you played some of this out.

COHEN: Okay, so why not make it real easy? Get rid of race categories altogether. That's Ward Connerly's suggestion.

Mr. WARD CONNERLY (American Civil Rights Institute): I do not check boxes because I think that they do not tell the government anything at all of significance about me. I am an American citizen. Nothing else should matter.

COHEN: Connerly heads the American Civil Rights Institute and served as a University of California regent. In 2003 he unsuccessfully sponsored and initiative in California which would have banned state agencies from collecting any racial data. He argues that little boxes on forms shouldn't be the driving force behind public policy.

CONNERLY: We don't as people what is your religion so that we can somehow track you for purposes of public policy, and for some religion is more important than, quote, race. We don't ask you about your sexual orientation when you apply for college admissions, but we ask you about your race.

COHEN: Multi-racial grad student Aurora Chang-Ross says she doesn't think this country is ready to do away with the race categories just yet. She says she's pleased that the Education Department is more accommodating, but wonders if this is really the best use of school's time and money.

Ms. CHANG-ROSS: The box is sort of the tip of the iceberg, but I'm not sure if that's, you know, the best place to do it. And I think the most important thing is to really have the larger conversations about what race means and why race exists.

COHEN: There's still plenty of time to have those conversations. The new Department of Education proposals are just in a public comment period right now. If approved, they won't actually go into effect until three years from now. Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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