Professor Prewitt began by declaring that the racial classification system used in the 2000 Census was not well designed to help our society address the public policy challenges of the next century. He referenced modifications he felt were necessary to improve the census, though he recognized that not all would be feasible given the time constraints under which the Census Bureau operates. He stated that race classification originally stemmed from racist ideologies that did not lose their influence until at least the late 1960s. Landmark legislation of the 1960s and 1970s utilized the same classification categories, this time to combat discrimination in education, health care access, employment, and political participation. He said that counting and classifying by race had always gone hand in hand with public policies.
As the present classification system evolved, Professor Prewitt explained, problematic features remained, making it difficult for the current system to inform coherent policies for the 21st century. Among the factors he identified as making the current system unstable: 1) the blurring of racial boundaries through inter-marriage; 2) the introduction of the multiple-race option in official statistics; 3) multi-culturalism as a way to describe the society; 4) the increased use of census categories in the quest to assert group identities; e) the rhetorical and legal references to diversity in education and employment; 5) the increase in demographic diversity resulting from recent immigration; 6) the growth of the Latino population, counted in many venues as a racial group but in others as an ethnic group; 7) recent studies of race as biologically significant; 8) DNA testing as a fashionable way to uncover individual ancestry; and 9) political efforts to eliminate race and ethnicity from the statistical system all together.
Given the new conditions and the absence of a social norm defining race and racial identity, Professor Prewitt posed what he felt was a basic and essential question to the Commission: What purpose should guide official statistics on race and ethnicity?