Should we Collect Race Data?

Here's a question: should we collect race data and use it in mapping and GIS? That is, should the government or the states have data categories in things like the census in which information on race is collected? Currently the Unites States does collect this kind of race-based data. The Census Bureau, for example, has categories in which respondents designate both their "ethnicity" (meaning whether they are Hispanic or not) and their "race" (see sample forms from 2000 Census).

So what would happen if we stopped collecting this data? We could look at France for an answer. Since 1978 they have barred the collection of race data without permission:

Unlike the United States, Britain, or even the Netherlands, France maintains a "color-blind" model of public policy. This means that it targets virtually no policies directly at racial or ethnic groups. Instead, it uses geographic or class criteria to address issues of social inequalities.
Race is a pervasive problem in this country and several professional organizations that deal with racial issues, such as the American Sociological Association and the American Association of Anthropologists, have issued statements on race data collection. Perhaps not surprisingly they come to different conclusions. Anthropologists, citing their research since WWII which indicates there is no biological reality to race, are generally quite sceptical about it, and careful to reject the notion of clear and natural categories of humans. Race was invented in the 18th century in order to put some people above others:
How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The "racial" worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth.
There's also a good discussion on this site called "Is race real?"

The sociology statement agonises over the issue before coming down squarely in favor of the need for race data collection. The sociology profession believes it is necessary in order to combat social inequalities, although they don't explain how a country like France can do so without using race data.

The issue is that racial categories have more variation within them than between them. We know from genetics that the vast majority of physical differences, about 94%, occurs within racial groups. That means that only about 6% of genetic differences occur between the typical races.

So the grouping has internal variation that is very meaningful. This is much like the ecological fallacy, or ecological inference problem which makes it a mistake to infer individual properties based on aggregate level data. The EIP is one of the most fundamental problems of the social sciences, given that our data is often at group level (eg., Census data tracts).

"Race" is another instance of this common problem. The internal and continuous nature of the variation is masked by the discrete category. Both professional associations are of course anti-racist and seeking to end racism. But it's worth remembering that in order to have racism you have to speak, deal with, and refer to... race. It is the very racial categories and their constant reproduction in our discourse and datasets that allows for racism.

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