Conventions about race signal policy blind spots

By Molly M. Scott :: February 15th, 2013

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Photo by Flickr user goto10, used under a Creative Commons License (cc-by-sa 2.0)

When the forms for the American Community Survey arrived at our door, I have to admit, I was a little excited. I use these data all the time for different purposes and was intrigued to see what it’s like to fill out the survey myself. And then, there it was again, the question that always seems to pop up and cause problems: race.

Since my husband moved to the United States with me from Chile almost 13 years ago, he has struggled with how to answer questions like this on marketing surveys, student profiles, financial aid applications, even the hospital forms when our daughter was born. Sure, the Hispanic/Latino box is easy enough to check, but the choices under “race” can be downright baffling for a man who identifies with the indigenous side of his “mestizo” heritage.

The fact is, there are no good options. White, black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander—none of them applies. And yet, people are often impatient when my husband inquires about the dilemma. “Just check ‘white,’” he’s been told on many different occasions. Usually he writes in “Chilean,” although he sometimes considers checking “American Indian” because “americano" in Spanish includes all peoples in North and South America, and “Indian” and “indigenous” feel like synonyms.

My husband’s experience is by no means unique to Latin Americans or immigrants for that matter. But it’s illustrative of a larger problem we have in the policy world. Just as we’ve latched on to simplified race and ethnicity categories to understand the basic demography of our population, we use many other narrowly defined metrics to construct conventional narratives framing the discussion around the big policy issues of our time—among them poverty, housing and homelessness, employment, health, and education.

To be effective, policies must reflect a more nuanced understanding of the populations whose needs are to be addressed. This is the first of a series of blog posts that will challenge some of our basic assumptions, particularly as they pertain to some of our fastest growing minority populations.

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