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The Executive Officer’s Column

A Bold and Necessary Stance on Race Data

Against a backdrop of disciplines such as human molecular biology and anthropology that have declared “race” to be bereft of scientific merit or interest, ASA’s Council in August adopted a contrary policy based on a carefully considered statement developed by the ASA Task Force on race, chaired by Troy Duster. Explaining the scientific importance of collecting and analyzing data on race, the Association’s position is contained in the Statement of the American Sociological Association on the Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race, which was made public at the Annual Meeting in Chicago. The statement documents how race is embedded in social practices, affecting access to resources and influencing social justice.

Prompted by recent contentious public debates on the utility of racial data, and some legislative initiatives (e.g., in California) that would forbid governments from soliciting such data, ASA urges the continuation of collecting and analyzing data on race. Prominent sociologists unveiled Council’s official statement with the hope that it will contribute significantly to our nation’s dialogue about race and how to better understand race relations in our society. [See related article on page one of this issue, and view ASA’s press release and the complete Council statement at www.asanet.org/media/race.html and www.asanet.org/media/racestmt02.pdf, respectively.]

ASA’s race statement emerged from two ideological currents. One is the latest revival of “scientific racism” and the other is the argument for a “colorblind” society. Most readers will remember Philippe Rushton’s 1999 book, Race, Evolution, and Behavior, in which he argued that both high crime rates and low measured IQs of blacks are explained by genetics. An original impetus for an ASA statement was to reply to “social scientists and non-scientists who are reviving discredited arguments that treat racial categories as biological and unequal.” Even before Rushton’s book, sociologists had mobilized to counter the opinions of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their earlier book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by carefully reanalyzing arguments, rigorously re-running regression models using The Bell Curve’s same data, and publishing articles and books such as Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth, by Claude Fischer, Michael Hout, Martin Jankowski, Samuel Lucas, Ann Swidler, and Kim Voss. Sociologists successfully countered the pessimistic arguments that eugenic policy would improve society, and that policies such as additional education expenditures and affirmative action were misguided.

Some suggest that The Bell Curve itself was born of a “sociological science vacuum,” because the role of ability in the stratification process was a neglected topic in sociological study. By the time the race task force began its work, however, the findings of the human genome project—that there are more within- than between-group racial differences—were more widely known. In response, the American Anthropological Association recommended that ethnicity replace race. Conservatives continued to oppose affirmative action, arguing that the United States should be colorblind and that data on race and their analysis only increased racism. Sociologists have mobilized again, however, to document that race is a meaningful and consequential social, not biological, concept, and to call for its continued measurement.

What does this suggest for our work as sociologists? First, sociologists must be unafraid to study difficult topics about racial differences, because lack of scientific study creates a vacuum that can be filled by pseudo-science. Second, social scientists must go beyond studies that only include race as an independent variable. As I said in my remarks at the press conference, “Social scientists face the large challenge of ensuring that scientific knowledge about race is placed in meaningful social contexts.” As Barbara Reskin eloquently asserted in her Presidential Address, “Until more scholars turn to the mechanisms that cause the social and economic fates of different groups to vary so widely, there will neither be genuine explanations for inequalities among groups, nor a productive contribution to social policy on related issues.”

Finally, sociologists need to understand the power of our work to advance public understanding about how race profoundly affects everyday life. We must move beyond the important venues of scholarly journals. ASA’s press conference to release publicly the statement and the resulting coverage in such places as the Chicago Sun Times (with a readership of 1.7 million) is an example of what is needed. ASA’s Contexts magazine and the “Public Sociologies” Annual Meeting theme for 2004 (see page 4) are other examples. ASA’s statement is an important example of the efforts the Association and our members can make on behalf of the discipline and our nation.

The current public debate about the utility of race data and their analysis is one in which sociologists are obliged to participate as scientists, because race is real in the eyes of social beings, and its measurable consequences run deep in all realms of social life. To forestall the public collection of this important source of information to understand how society organizes itself would cause significant harm to an empirical knowledge base that promises to help keep our society accountable to all its citizens. The counter-argument that ignoring “race” would better advance the cultivation of a race-blind society ignores that nations, such as France, that do not officially collect data on race and ethnicity have not overcome racism. The frequently devastating social impacts of race cannot be subject to scientific inquiry if scientists have no access to such data. Our nation would be in the uncomfortable position of being scientifically blind and consequently much further from the goal of becoming racially blind.

Sally T. Hillsman