The results of the 2020 Census, the first batch of which was released last month (with more detailed data to come throughout the year), are arriving after a period of intense racial reckoning in this country. But rather than delivering the same old data we have been accustomed to seeing from this age-old American tradition (the census dates back to 1790), we will be privy later this year to a much more nuanced understanding of America’s racial and ethnic makeup, thanks to a novel approach to asking respondents about their racial and ethnic identity.
The changes could not be more timely, as they arrive at a moment when social, political, and economic patterns rooted in centuries of structural inequity are newly under examination in ways both familiar and fresh. And after a year in which unprecedented numbers of students missed out on proper schooling, there is a particularly intense focus on education and the racial disparities therein.
Enhancing these practices in education would provide critical insight into issues of access and equity, equipping policymakers with the information needed to make the best possible choices to improve the system.
Schools, districts, and universities, like most public institutions, are required to collect data on race and ethnicity, but do so using antiquated and overly broad categories. The 2020 Census, with its revamped approach to racial and ethnic identity, provides a roadmap for better data collection on race and ethnicity in education. Enhancing these practices in education would provide critical insight into issues of access and equity, equipping policymakers with the information needed to make the best possible choices to improve the system.
Elite Higher Education Fails to Walk the Walk
One salient example of the need for better data on race and ethnicity can be found in an increasingly ubiquitous conversation happening in college administration buildings across the United States: what ties do our institution have to American chattel slavery, and which obligations do we therefore have to the descendents of people who were victimized by the practice? It’s one thing for these schools to promise a soul searching mission, and quite another to step up and do something about what they find.
At present, colleges, especially elite ones, are falling short in two respects: not only do they fail to provide sufficient access to Black students in general, but they also fall notably short on recruiting those who are the descendants of enslaved Americans. In fact, institutions usually don’t even collect data that would help them understand how severe the problem is.
In the fall of 2020, Harvard University reported that
6 percent of its enrolled graduate students identified as Black or African-American. This is particularly unimpressive, given that 13.5 percent of all graduate students in the United States are Black or African-American and that Harvard has pledged that it will “fully acknowledge and understand” the institution’s ties to slavery over its 395-year history.
If institutions are serious about addressing historical inequities against African Americans, they should ensure that their concrete efforts actually benefit students from that group. That requires accurately identifying institutional demographics at a nuanced level.
As a graduate student on Harvard’s campus a few years ago, I was all the more surprised, given the already low denominator of total Black graduate students, to find that many of my fellow classmates sitting around the room in the Black Graduate Student Association were not generationally African-American at all. They hailed from Nigeria, Britain, Jamaica, Kenya, and elsewhere. How many exactly? I didn’t know. More importantly, because of how schools and districts flatten key categories when they collect data on race and ethnicity, Harvard probably didn’t even know. At the end of the day, if institutions are serious about addressing historical inequities against African Americans, they should ensure that their concrete efforts actually benefit students from that group. That requires accurately identifying institutional demographics at a nuanced level.
Why American Education Needs Better Data on Race
The limitations of current race and ethnicity data collection practices have many implications for colleges and school districts beyond understanding the diversity embedded in Black communities in schools. These implications range from issues of access, civil rights, and segregation to questions about representation, inclusion, and belonging for students of all backgrounds.
At a time when school segregation is once again increasing, and access to selective schooling is hotly debated, accurate data is as important as ever.
Many students of Asian descent, for instance, have remarked how they have been treated as a monolith in recent debates about segregation in selective schools in New York City and Boston. A lack of specific data conceals which specific communities benefit from the enrollment system and which communities do not. Moreover, it has been well-documented that students of Southeast Asian descent tend to have lower academic outcomes than other members of the AAPI community, yet they get lumped together with all members of the Asian community, and bear the consequences of the associated “model minority” stereotype.
In higher education, colleges and universities tend to report the percentage of Hispanic/Latino students collectively, concealing important diasporic differences in places that might be over- or underrepresented. These blindspots raise real questions about access. In both cases, members of these broad categories are treated monolithically, yet the issues they confront may be drastically different.
Furthermore, these data also have important implications for choice at every level, from square one of K–12 through to the farthest reaches of higher education. Parents seeking to make informed decisions about a school based on the diversity of its student body and the representativeness of its staff require better data.
Parents have good reason to concern themselves with these matters. The
benefits of integrated classrooms on all students is well-substantiated, and research shows that having teachers and role models who come from backgrounds of traditionally underrepresented populations can significantly boost academic and non-academic outcomes for students from these backgrounds. Proactive staffing efforts can be made by districts to ensure students have representation in schools across a district, as well as enable proactive decision making by parents. I might, for instance, want to ensure my Haitian- and African-American daughter is going to a school where she will actually encounter both Haitian- and African-American teachers. How Race and Ethnicity Data Is Currently Collected, and How It Can Be Improved
All public K–12 school districts, as well as colleges and universities that accept federal funds, are required to collect data on race and ethnicity, and must do so according to federally prescribed standards. Most school districts and universities do so when students first register for school, such as in kindergarten or freshman year of college, and report it annually. Many district and university officials point to this federal requirement as a reason why they are unable to collect more nuanced information about their students’ racial backgrounds.
This justification, however, represents a common misunderstanding about the federal requirements. Yes, federal regulations require the collection of binary (yes or no), and individual (or multiple) responses on Latino ethnicity and the five prescribed racial categories. By no means, however, do districts and universities need to stop there.
The relevant federal rule was first established by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the
Federal Register in 1977. Last updated in 1997, it explicitly states that the broad racial and ethnic categories about which agencies and schools are required to collect and report data—American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, or White—are minimum categories. It even encourages local agencies to collect additional data to meet specific needs. Despite this guidance, the vast majority of districts and post-secondary institutions only do the bare minimum. This is a loss not only for the federal government to which they’re reporting: most of all, it’s a loss for themselves.
What can be done…
By school districts and colleges/universities?
School districts and colleges and universities can add sub-categories within their broader federally mandated racial/ethnic categories to get a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the composition of their student bodies, and report this data publicly.
States can require their districts to add sub-categories within the broader federally mandated racial/ethnic categories that reflect highly represented populations in any given state (i.e. Indian Americans in New Jersey or Hmong Americans in Minnesota) and require these districts to report this data.
ED’s guidance in the federal register explicitly states: “Nothing prohibits States … from requesting more racial and ethnic information solely for State level purposes than is collected using the minimum Federal categories in the two-part question.”
The federal department of education should set forth a new standard in the collection and reporting of race/ethnicity data for students and staff in schools, colleges and universities that adds sub-categories within the broader federally mandated racial/ethnic categories to better understand the demographic makeup of educational institutions in the United States and the implications on equity, access, segregation and opportunity.
Two improvements, first used in the 2000 Census, have been officially adopted as part of OMB’s regulation: first, the use of a two-part question to categorize Hispanic/Latino as an ethnicity and to allow Latinos to also select a race; and second, the option for any person to select multiple options, rather than being required to only select one. While all districts now collect data consistent with this change, most school districts, as well as the U.S. Department of Education (ED), fail to represent the nuance even of these minor improvements in public reporting. The standard practice is to simply count Black Latinos (i.e. however many Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and others might self-identify thus), for instance, as only Hispanic/Latino, and not Black. On the other hand, colleges and universities typically “double count” their multi-racial students in order to inflate the number of students of color they report, because they want to appear as diverse as possible.
In a widely heralded change for the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau gave respondents the opportunity to write in their specific origins within the broad racial categories, with examples for each listed. For instance, a student of Nigerian descent would be able to check “Black or African American” and specify “Nigerian” beneath. Although clearly permissible and even encouraged in the federal regulation, this practice is highly uncommon in school districts and colleges across the country. The change in the Census should be a beacon to institutions trying to improve the quality of their race and ethnicity data; moreover, when the Census Bureau releases this data
later this year, it will grant fascinating insights into the makeup of our society in greater detail than we have ever had. Figure 1
A copy of the 2020 Census, which for the first time gave respondents the opportunity to write in origins within the broader racial categories. Source: https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial/2020/technical-documentation/questionnaires-and-instructions/questionnaires/2020-informational-questionnaire.pdf
Most school districts offer only the five broad racial categories (plus Hispanic/Latino ethnicity) as options. Some, like New York City, provide examples of origins that fall under each category (but do not provide an option to select them), while others, like Rapides Parish in Louisiana, do not offer clarity beyond the five racial categories, potentially confusing registrants, such as a student of Saudi Arabian origin, who would officially check “White” (people of North African or Middle Eastern descent are still officially counted as White, much to the confusion of many individuals whose families hail from these regions.)
The required form for families registering for Kindergarten in the NYC DOE, which asks families to categorize their students according to five broad racial categories enumerated by the federal government. Source: https://www.schools.nyc.gov/enrollment/enrollment-help/enrollment-forms Figure 3
The required form for pre-K enrollment in Rapides Parish in Louisiana, which asks families to categorize their students according to five broad racial categories enumerated by the federal government, but does not offer any clarification or examples of who might fall under these categories. Source: https://www.rapidesearlychildhoodnetwork.com/headstart-application
The last comprehensive study of race and ethnicity collection practices by public schools occurred just before the last update in the Federal Register, which is now twenty-five years old. Nonetheless,
that study, which included a large survey and was conducted by the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES), offers important insights into practices by districts across the country. At the time, 73 percent of schools surveyed only used the five federal categories. Some schools also offered an “other” or multiracial category. Most strikingly, only 7 percent of school districts used additional racial or ethnic classifications in addition to the five mandated ones—for example, asking a student if they identified as Filipino, instead of merely as “Asian.” Of these districts, the vast majority of them were in the American West. Finally, 41 percent of all respondents felt the five categories were not adequate to capture the racial or ethnic background of some students. That was in 1995.
Most strikingly, only 7 percent of school districts used additional racial or ethnic classifications in addition to the five mandated ones—for example, asking a student if they identified as Filipino, instead of merely as “Asian.”
Some simple steps can remedy this issue. Districts and universities should take affirmative steps to collect better data on the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the students they serve. They can add subcategories to the information they already collect on race and ethnicity, using the 2020 Census as a prototype. Using multiple choice features could further simplify this process while ensuring minimal additional burden in the collection process, as well as continuity with historical practices for the purposes of data comparison (because the broad categories would still exist). Furthermore, extending this effort to employees would also greatly benefit these institutions and the general public at minimal cost. States and the federal Department of Education also have the opportunity to step into the void and create a higher standard for collection and reporting than currently exists, given that some institutions will not voluntarily take such measures.
The Dangers of Taking Racial Categorization Too Far
Of course, in attempting to chart a more perfect path for the collection of data on race and ethnicity, we must remember that it is not only an imperfect science: it is not a science at all. It is a deeply flawed endeavor that has only been made necessary by the decisions of our ancestors to categorize and label human beings based on the color of their skin and discriminate based on these categories. Moreover, an obsession with precision in categorization runs the risk of ascribing more meaning to these categories than they have. The deeper one goes down the rabbit hole of trying to be as precise as possible about one’s race, the more evident the absurdity of the practice becomes. For instance, persons with North African origins are directed to select “White” on the federal census, whereas persons with Sub-Saharan African origin are directed to select “Black.” Where should one draw this artificial boundary? In Sudan? Or Eritrea? Should countries be split? Or perhaps, we should adopt the
Brazilian Census’s practice of using actual colors (they use black, brown, yellow, and white).
Further, our social-cultural understandings of race have changed significantly over time and will continue to change, particularly as our society becomes more diverse and multiracial. Whereas Irish Americans were once not considered White, few would question the Whiteness of a person of Irish ancestry today. How might members of the next generation, which will be significantly more multiracial than any prior generation, identify with these racial categories that our federal government has established?
Racial discrimination exists in our society because of historical
and contemporary practices; therefore, we must track, monitor, and use data to ensure equitable access to educational and other opportunities established by the government.
In considering the fact that race is entirely a social construct, and not a biological one—even the
Federal Register concedes that its five categories are “not anthropologically or scientifically based”—we must not lose sight of the purpose of collecting such data. Racial discrimination exists in our society because of historical and contemporary practices; therefore, we must track, monitor, and use data to ensure equitable access to educational and other opportunities established by the government. The more accurate our understanding of the nature and impact of inequality, the better chance we have to do something about it.