1989 Letter to Cong. Sawyer

September 15, 1989

Congressman Thomas Sawyer
Chairman, Sub-Committee on the Census and Population
US House of Representatives
Washington DC 20515-0001

Dear Congressman Sawyer:

      It is our understanding that the sub-committee you chair is responsible for overseeing the Census.  By way of introduction, I am the President of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans, a federation of local organizations representing interracial/multiethnic families and individuals across the United States. AMEA was launched last November.  The oldest of our local groups, I-Pride, (Interracial Intercultural Pride) Inc. here in the Bay Area, is more than ten years old.  Our fundamental interest is education, fostering an awareness of interracial and multicultural identity, which we believe is one of the essential keys to unlocking America's, and also the world's, profound difficulty with the issue of race and interethnic relations.  At minimum, we are interested in promoting an awareness of multiethnic families and individuals in order to secure equal standing among every other ethnic community in the United States.

     Among the many issues of interest to our members, perhaps none is of more concern than racial classification on official forms.  Indeed, I-Pride was launched back in 1979 on this very issue with respect to the Berkeley schools. Back then, I-Pride succeeded in having the school board adopt a separate category, "biracial/bicultural", which when checked, permitted a student to check any of the other boxes which applied to them.* Unfortunately, state and federal officials said the Berkeley policy would cause confusion as it conflicted with their own systems.  At that time, I-Pride, as a local group, was in no position to affect federal policy.  Since then, our community has organized nationwide.

     Ultimately, the official classification of people by "race" is abhorrent to many of us. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that most of us believe there may be some temporary utility in obtaining ethnic data for purposes of providing programs aimed at addressing the special needs of historically mistreated ethnic groups, which include, we would maintain, interracial families and individuals.  Arguably, there may also be a real societal interest in knowing the degree to which our nation's demography is changing interracially, not a small matter given the gravity of race relations generally.

     However, any such data, must be accurate to be useful.  How can we reasonably plan any policy involving race/ethnicity if the data on which we are basing those policies is factually inaccurate?  Take public health, for instance: how can we really know what are the health needs of a given genetic population if we don't account for genetic blending?
This can be vitally important in tracking the incidence of genetic diseases.  What about people having multiple Native American tribal origins or who are part white and not tribally registered?  How can a rationale policy be formulated to address their rights and special needs? (see San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 1989, page A4).  Or what about Amerasian individuals: are they to be designated "white" or "black" because their head of household is "white" or "black"?  How will we be able to assess their needs and concerns? These are but a few of many such questions.

     The process of gathering racial and ethnic data by government must also be conducted in a manner that demonstrates respect for the dignity of the individual, an essential aspect of which entails truth and integrity of identity.  There is, for example, no compelling state interest of which we are aware that justifies asking a child on a form at school to deny one of their parents at the same time they are asked to deny their specific identity as a multiethnic/interracial individual.  Such a scheme is demeaning, degrading and esteem-damaging. It violates the multiethnic individual's constitutional rights of equal protection, privacy and even, in some cases, their freedom of religion (see Time magazine, September 4, 1989, page 17).  It is also wrong to perpetuate the pseudo-scientific concept of "race", particularly in our education system.  Moreover, it is at least unethical to ask anyone, but especially a child at school, to in effect, lie on an official form.  Is this part of the lesson in ethics government seeks to promote?

     We would propose that all federal forms, including the Census, add the category "multiethnic/interracial" and permit those who check this box to check all other boxes that apply.  Yes, there are some ethnic minority individuals and groups who say they are opposed to any "mixed" category because it might result in diminished entitlements. However, a thoughtfully fashioned categorization scheme, such as the one we propose, makes this concern irrelevant and immaterial, since it accounts for the fullness of an individual's heritage.  If that heritage includes a historically mistreated ethnicity, such as African, Native, Mexican or Puerto Rican American, that fact will be manifest.

     Of course, besides the addition of a multiethnic/interracial category, our proposal requires that the government dispense with the ludicrous and wholly unnecessary "check-one-box-only" rule, for which there has never been a satisfactory justification. Certainly, the same computers that sort and analyze the census and other forms can distinguish how many actual individuals are being counted for various purposes.  If policy considerations dictate that it is appropriate to include a black-white individual as "black" for integration, affirmative action, or whatever, this can be done under the scheme we propose, while at the same time affording the multiethnic individual and families the dignity of their authentic heritage.

     We realize it is probably too late to add a new category to the 1990 census form. However, it is not too late to amend the rules governing the tallying of race/ethnicity on the 1990 census form to allow individuals the opportunity to designate more than one ethnic/racial category to accurately reflect the fullness of their heritage.  And it is not too late to begin changing all other government forms accordingly.

     Without a doubt, as time goes on, the interracial, multiethnic community will grow and become more visible.  Indeed, it may already be larger than is acknowledged.  We cannot know with any real degree of certainty because of existing racial categorization schemes on government forms.  Be that as it may, it's a safe guess that a majority of Americans are already multiethnic, if not interracial in the popular sense of the term.

     At the very least, we feel we deserve, no less than anyone else, the respect of recognition for who we really are.  Ideally, many of us also believe our community has the potential of becoming a stable core around which the ethnic pluralism of this country is unified, and perhaps, the core for promoting understanding and peace among the nations of the world.  Let us be recognized.

     We would like to know your views on this matter, and in particular, whether or not the "check-one-box-only" rule can be dispensed with in the conduct of the 1990 Census.  Any other pertinent information would be welcome.  For our part, if we can be of any further assistance, please let us know.

              Very Truly Yours,

              Carlos A. Fernandez, Esq.

* This statement regarding an allowance of multiple checkoffs was based on incorrect information received by us at the time of the drafting of this letter.  In fact, the Berkeley Schools student census forms included only the category "Interracial" without multiple checkoffs.