Would 'race' disappear if the United States officially stopped measuring it?

August 19, 2002

WASHINGTON, DC -- What if the U.S. government stopped measuring race? Would the results be positive, negative, or indifferent? Under what conditions does the classification of people by race for the purpose of scientific inquiry promote racial division, and when does it aid in the achievement of justice and equality?

Some scholarly and civic leaders believe that the very idea of "race" has the effect of promoting social division and they have proposed that the government stop collecting these data altogether. Respected voices from the fields of human molecular biology and physical anthropology (supported by research from the Human Genome Project) assert that the concept of race has no validity in their respective fields. Growing numbers of humanist scholars, social anthropologists, and political commentators have joined the chorus in urging the nation to rid itself of the concept of race.

At its press conference today, the American Sociological Association (ASA), a scholarly organization of 13,000 academic and research sociologists, asserts in an official statement that it is imperative to support the continued collection and scholarly analysis of data on racial taxonomies.

"Why should we continue to measure race?" asked ASA spokesperson Troy Duster, summarizing the ASA statement. "If biological research now questions the utility of the concept for scientific work in this field, how, then, can racial categories be the subject of valid scientific investigation at the social level?"

"The answer," explained Duster, who chaired the ASA task force that drafted the race measurement statement, "is that our social and economic lives are integrally organized around race as a social construct. The ASA statement explains how race has been a sorting mechanism for friendship, mating, and marriage; a basis for the distribution of social privileges and resources; and a reason to organize social movements to preserve or challenge the status quo. Sociologists are interested in explaining how and why social definitions of race persist and change."

Sociologists also seek to explain the nature of power relationships between and among racial groups and to understand more fully the nature and evolution of belief systems about race--the dimensions of how people use the concept and apply it in different circumstances.

Racial profiling in law enforcement activities, "redlining" of predominantly minority neighborhoods in the home mortgage and insurance industries, differential medical treatment, and tracking in schools, all exemplify social practices that sociologists study and want to continue to study. The 15-page ASA statement on race gives examples of significant research findings that illustrate the persistent role of race in schools, labor markets, neighborhoods, and health care.

ASA also goes on record as opposing the elimination of data collection on race, because sociological studies show that this practice does not eliminate its use in daily life, both informally by individuals and formally within social and economic institutions. In France, information on race is seldom collected officially, but evidence of systematic racial discrimination remains. In Brazil, the nation's then-ruling military junta barred the collection of racial data in the 1970 census. The resulting information void, coupled with government censorship, diminished public discussion of racial issues but did not substantially reduce racial inequalities. Refusing to acknowledge the fact of racial classification, feelings, and actions, and refusing to measure them does not erase their consequences and will not allow research-based approach to the alleviation of race-induced social inequalities. At best, these actions will preserve the status quo and create an information vacuum.

As the United States becomes more diverse, the need for public agencies to continue to collect data on racial categories will become even more important. Sociologists are well qualified to study the impact of "race"--and all the ramifications of racial categorization--on people's lives and social institutions. It is the ASA's view that the continuation of the collection and scholarly analysis of such data serves both scientists' and the public's interests.
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Journalists are invited to attend any of the more than 500 presentations, book panels, poster sessions and symposia featured on a wide range of topics at the Annual Meeting. Press facilities will be located in Room PDR 1 of the Hilton Chicago Hotel.

Additional contact information:
Lee Herring (202) 383-9005, ext. 332
Media Office Phone, August 16-19: (312) 294-6783; Fax: (312) 294-6785

American Sociological Association

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