Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies and I have been talking on at NRO’s The Corner about the Census form and the particularly obnoxious Question 9 asking the person’s “race.” Mark sent his form in after marking the option for “Some other race” and writing in “American” and he had a column in USA Today about it. As I pointed out, federal law specifies that you can be fined if you either don’t answer ($100 per question) or provide a false answer ($500 per question). So the question arises whether Mark’s answer could get him in trouble.

There is no question that the bureaucrats at the Census Bureau will not like that answer. It is likely that one of their temporary workers will call Mark or actually pay a visit to his residence if they cannot get hold of him or he refuses to change his answer on the phone. If they still can’t get the kind of answer they want, they apparently will just impute his race based on what he looks like or where he lives – a practice that means the Census will be filled with questionable, inaccurate data. It is also highly-offensive racial stereotyping and profiling in a society where so many of us are of mixed race and ancestry. In a report it issued on the 2010 Census, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that the race question be made voluntary like religious affiliation questions (see 13 U.S.C. § 221(c)) and that individuals be able to provide whatever answer they think is most appropriate for their race, ethnicity or ancestry.

Under current law, the real question that arises is whether the Census Bureau could win a case against someone it decides to prosecute for answering “American.” This is a very interesting issue and it may be one the Bureau really does not want to face in court. Why? Because their question on race and the choices provided is a conglomeration of political correctness and half-baked, liberal social policy theories and assumptions that have absolutely nothing to do with hard science, biology and genetics.

For example, the question asks for your race, yet it then gives you a number of choices like Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese that are nationalities based on ancestry, not racial categories. Or they are geographically-based terms – one of the choices is “Guamanian or Chamorro,” terms that refer to the residents of the Mariana Islands, which includes the American territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Island in Micronesia. Question 8 on the Census form, which asks whether a person is “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” even uses totally made-up terms like “Chicano,” which has no scientifically-based meaning. It is just an ethnic label that became popular in the 1960’s as part of the radical Chicano movement.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says that scientists do not agree on the number of races that exist, nor “the features to be used in the identification of races, or the meaning of race itself…Thus, race has never in the history of its use had a precise meaning…[and] modern researchers have concluded that the concept of race has no biological validity.” So if your official choice on the form includes different kinds of nationalities in the answer to Question 9, then one could try to convince a judge that being “American” is just as valid a choice of nationalities. This is particularly true since the Census relies on self-identification.

Most people have no idea what their real “race” is since that would require genetic research and tracking back your ancestors through many generations. If I look white but have a great-great-great-grandmother who was an American Indian, can the Census Bureau contest my marking the American Indian category? If I have ancestors that were white, black, and American Indian, what am I supposed to choose? “American” seems the best way to describe the polyglot background that so many of us have. Or is the Census Bureau going to analyze how many drops of my blood are traceable to a particular racial or ethnic category the way Southern states did during Jim Crow?

There may have been a reason to collect racial information in 1850 when many nonwhites were only counted as 3/5’s of a person for reapportionment and tax purposes, but it is questionable whether the data should be collected today. On the one hand, there is no doubt the racial information will be used for pernicious reasons during redistricting and the distribution of federal largesse. On the other hand, it can also be used as evidence to combat those who claim that this nation has made no racial progress over the past 40 years, a claim that is completely untrue. As with a lot of things, it is a very mixed bag of bad and good. But I agree with Ward Connerly when he testified before the Commission on Civil Rights that classifying and subdividing Americans is “repugnant, ‘inhuman’ to use the characterization of Nelson Mandela, and socially regressive for a nation that proclaims as its creed ‘one nation, indivisible.’”