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Should The Census Be Less Black And White?

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For months, first-generation Irish American Michael E. Bergin dropped off his blonde, blue-eyed daughter, Jessica, at her second-grade classroom in suburban Atlanta every morning. Then his wife, Sharyn Doanes-Bergin, who is African American, showed up at a school party last Christmas. Said a teacher to Jessica: "I didn't know you were black." In people's minds, "Jessica has to be one or the other--black or white," says Doanes-Bergin. "My children want to be able to claim both their parents, but the government is always forcing them to make a choice."

To avoid that dilemma, the Bergins want federal and state agencies to adopt a new racial category: "multiracial." And they're not the only ones looking for official recognition. Under growing pressure to create a new palette for America's rainbow of races, the Office of Management & Budget will launch a round of hearings, beginning July 7, to reexamine the government's 17-year-old scheme for dividing the U.S. into four races (white, black, Asian, and American Indian) and two ethnic groups (Hispanic and non-Hispanic).

The idea of a demographic overhaul is meeting resistance from traditional civil rights groups, which fear that breaking out new ethnic groups would cost them political strength. And business worries that a proliferation of categories could be a nightmare for companies that must meet affirmative-action guidelines.

But advocates of the change argue that new categories are needed, both to reflect America's changing demographics and to help new groups win more official attention and aid. Arab Americans want a new racial listing for people of Middle Eastern origin. Hispanics want the Census Bureau to break their 25.7 million population into at least six subgroups. Native Hawaiians argue over whether to throw their quarter-million numbers in with Pacific Islanders or Native Americans.

Multiracial Americans, whose numbers are fueled by a surge in interracial marriages, may have the best chance of gaining a spot in the federal bureaucracy. Three states now require a multiracial box on school forms, and Georgia will recognize the category on all state-mandated paperwork starting July 1. As states send their multiracial data to the feds, "we're going to build the pressure on Washington to act," says Susan Graham, who heads Atlanta-based Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally).

DILUTED CLOUT? That worries civil rights groups. The Census Bureau estimates that 75% of the country's 32.7 million African Americans have ancestors of other races. Not all would list themselves as multi-racial--but even a 10% switch would reverberate through legislative-redistricting plans, school-desegregation schemes, and fair-housing and -lending enforcement. "Any reduction in the size of the African American population would be counterproductive," says Billy J. Tidwell, research director for the National Urban League.

Business, too, is cool to change. Marketers might welcome new census data that give them more information on groups with distinctive buying habits. But a proliferation of racial categories would be a nightmare for companies that must do complicated statistical analyses of their workforce's racial and ethnic makeup to meet affirmative-action guidelines. A multiracial category would pose special problems: "If my figures show I need multiracial engineers, where do I go to recruit them?" asks Lorence L. Kessler, an attorney at the business-backed Equal Employment Advisory Council in Washington.

The OMB hopes to decide whether to overhaul its categories by early 1995. Business opposition could still sink the move, as it did when the OMB tried a similar but less ambitious overhaul in 1988. Ethnic infighting, too, could undermine the drive. But the groups pressing for change are getting a receptive hearing in Washington--and that may mean that Jessica Bergin and her sister Jennifer will no longer have to choose between their parents.Mike McNamee in Washington

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