Affirmative Action

The Sordid Business of Divvying Us Up

from CATO Institute,
November, 2022:

Racial classifications by law have been as American as apple pie, since at least the 19th century. Modern Americans tend to shake their heads with revulsion when they think about or read about the lengths that government authorities went to back in the day to determine who was black for purposes of Jim Crow laws, or who was Asian for purposes of racist immigration and naturalization laws. But the irony is that while we don’t really think about it very often, racial classification dictated by government rules is more common today than probably ever before in American history. So many common activities—when you register your kid for school, when you apply for a job, when you apply for a mortgage and many other everyday occurrences—involve checking a box saying first whether you’re Hispanic or not and then which racial group you consider yourself to be a member of.

These modern racial classification norms did not arise spontaneously but are a product of maybe one of the most consequential government rules you’ve never heard of, a rule called Statistical Directive No. 15, which was promulgated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 1977.

At the time, this was considered a rather modest rule change, because federal agencies had already been gathering data about various groups in the United States, but the data were inconsistent. For example, there were at least eight ways of identifying the groups that we now call Hispanic back in the ‘70s.

You couldn’t compare data from one agency to another because there were no consistent classifications and definitions of the classifications. So the OMB said, “Okay. We just have to regularize this.” They formed a committee to do so, to which very little attention was paid, and eventually they came up with our modern classifications. And when OMB put these into the Federal Register, they warned, “By the way, just so we don’t have any misunderstandings here, they’re not supposed to be anthropological classifications. They’re not supposed to be racial classifications. . . They’re not supposed to be scientific in any way. They’re not to be used for eligibility for any government programs. They’re really just to have consistent statistics among agencies.”

Nevertheless, in a very short time, they became used for all sorts of government programs and government-mandated disclosure rules ranging from affirmative action, one area most of us are very familiar with, to some areas that we probably don’t recognize, that I didn’t even know existed.

Have you ever wondered what role tribal membership plays in determining whether someone gets the legal status of American Indian to be eligible, for example, for Bureau of Indian Affairs programs? Or why, if you’re an American of mixed racial heritage, there’s no multiracial category to check and, in fact, until 1987, you were allowed to check only one category? Or why the U.S. government will classify a person of South American ancestry whose family moved to Asia and then came to the United States as being solely Hispanic, but if you’re from an Asian background and you moved to Latin America and then to the United States, you are both Asian and Hispanic? Or why the government classifies immigrants from Pakistan as Asian, but their literal first cousins, who may live across the river and across the border in Afghanistan, are classified as white? Or why, as noted, researchers are required to categorize their subjects by crude racial divisions even though, as everyone acknowledges, those categories have no scientific validity.

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