ASA Issues Official Statement on Importance of Collecting Data on Race
By Roberta Spalter-Roth, Director
Research Program on the Discipline and Profession
At a landmark press conference on August 19, 2002, the American Sociological Association (ASA) released an official statement on the importance of collecting data and doing social scientific research on race. ASA’s outgoing President, Barbara Reskin (University of Washington), the Chair of the ASA Task Force on an ASA Statement on Race, Troy Duster (New York University and the University of California at Berkeley), and ASA’s Executive Officer, Sally T. Hillsman, introduced the statement during ASA’s Annual Meeting at the Chicago Hilton.
The purpose of the ASA statement is to support the continued measurement and study of race as a principal category in the organization of daily social life, so that scholars can document and analyze how race—as a changing social construct—shapes social ranking, access to resources, and life experiences. The statement in part responds to an initiative by advocate Ward Connerly to forbid the California state government from collecting information on race and ethnicity. The statement also responds to sentiments held by advocates, such as Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who argue that “identifying people by race only deepens the racial divide.” The ASA statement also addresses other scientific disciplines. Specifically, biologists and physical anthropologists have recently asserted that the concept of “race” does not have scientific validity and should no longer be measured.
“Why should we continue to measure race?” asked Duster in his remarks to the press. The answer, he explained, is that as long as Americans routinely sort each other into racial categories, and race is embedded in taken-for-granted institutional practices, race falls squarely on the scientific agenda. For example, he explained, “African Americans may have more prostate cancer because of nutrition or because they have a higher likelihood of living near toxic waste dumps. Hypertension may be higher among blacks because they are being profiled by police on the highway and followed in department stores. We must continue to collect data and to study race as a social phenomenon because it makes for better science and a more informed policy debate.”
In her remarks, Hillsman cautioned that social scientists should not just measure race. Rather, she declared, “We need to face the larger challenge of ensuring that scientific knowledge about race is placed in a meaningful social context and that our work should advance public understanding about how race affects everyday life.” (See “Vantage Point” column on page 2 of this issue of Footnotes.)
In responding to the argument that gathering information on race increases the racial divide in this country, Reskin affirmed that sociologists and other social scientists must have numbers to study social phenomena such as racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, redlining in minority neighborhoods, disparate medical treatment, and academic tracking in schools. “Without data, anybody’s claim is as good as anyone else’s” said Reskin, who was later quoted in an article in the Chicago Sun Times saying that “We hear people on the right say that we should have a colorblind society. The danger in that is that we become blind to disparities.”
Origin of Race Statement
The ASA statement on race began as an agenda item at the January 2000 meeting of the ASA Council, under the leadership of then president Joe Feagin (University of Florida). Prior to the Council meetings, Feagin received a letter from three ASA members, Judith Blau, Sherryl Kleinman, and Charles Kurzman (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), suggesting that the Council approve a public statement that race is socially, not biologically, constructed and that ASA either modify the statement approved by the American Anthropological Association or create a committee charged with drafting such a proposal.
The Council approved the committee route and appointed a task force, with Duster as Chair, to “craft an ASA statement on race that draws upon sociological knowledge and expertise for Council’s review and action within one year of their appointment. (See below for a list of the Task Force on race members.) By August 2001, the 20-member task force had been appointed and met for the first time. After a second meeting, Duster was able to present a draft statement for Council’s consideration at its winter 2002 meeting. The Chair and members of the task force continued to work on the statement and the Council unanimously accepted (with one abstention) the statement, agreeing that it provided strong evidence for the study of race as a social concept and for the continued scholarly and public interest in continuing to measure it.
The Statement of the American Sociological Association on the Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race can be found on ASA’s webpage at http://www.asanet.org/media/race.html.