Kenneth PrewittWhat Is Your Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans

Princeton University Press, 2013

by Ryan Allen on January 13, 2015

Kenneth Prewitt

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Education] The US Census has been an important American institution for over 220 years. Since 1790, the US population has been counted and compiled, important figures when tabulating representation and electoral votes. The Census has also captured the racial make-up of the US and has become a powerful public policy tool with both data and clout, affecting a range of policies from segregation to affirmative action. In What Is Your Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton University Press 2013), Dr. Kenneth Prewitt provides a broad historical and political overview of the racial counting component of the Census, from its inception to its future. Prewitt, Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University, was formerly the Director the US Census Bureau, and his first-hand experience strengthens the narrative throughout the book.

Prewitt’s book follows the historical ebbs and flows of the Census and race politics in the US, which are unequivocally linked. From the early era of counting the slave population, to later integrating the new immigrant whites—such as Southern European Catholics and East European Jews—with the larger White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority, and calumniating with race identity politics reflected in the Census discourse today, What Is Your Race? is a fascinating and thorough account of an American institution that has had a powerful influence on policy and society. Specifically, the racial categories, called statistical races in the book, used in the Census have been etched into the American psyche, and the results have sometimes been quite devises. Why should the Census count Hispanics in their own category and not Middle Eastern Americans? Prewitt faced these kinds of tough questions while running the Census and now grapples with them in this book. His final recommendation to ease tensions created from the simplistic statistical race measurement currently used by the Census is to incrementally move away form these categories and to move towards counting national origin, providing much more statistical granularity. You will have to read the book for the full policy prescription, which is fully mapped out for the next century.

Dr. Prewitt joins New Books in Education for the interview. For questions or comments on the podcast, you can also find the host on Twitter at @PoliticsAndEd.

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