February 2008 Issue Volume 36 Issue 2

to print a pagePrint This Page

ASA Forum for public discussion and debate

Defending Against Misuses of Data on Race and Ethnicity

asa_forumAs we move toward the 2010 Census and as ethnic
or racial groups continue to be targets of federal, state, and local authorities, I believe it is time to revisit the adequacy of ASA efforts to protect against the misuse of racial and ethnic data gathered as part of sociological and related research. The ASA has a special responsibility to be alert to and strenuously discourage any such misuses given that we, as a professional organization, have a very clear and strong public policy statement stressing the importance of collecting racial identifiers for research purposes, The Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race (http://www2.asanet.org/media/asa_race_statement.pdf).

Both the 2003 ASA policy document on race data and the ASA Code of Ethics would seem to be logical places for equally strong statements on the misuse of race (or ethnic) data for group or individual targeting purposes. While both documents refer to the importance of data confidentiality, neither explicitly addresses nor discourages sociologists from participating in or assisting efforts at racial and ethnic targeting.

Press accounts detail various law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the United States that use data mining and similar technologies involving census and other demographic data for targeting purposes. Clearly, this is not an imaginary threat. Moreover, recent research has established that targeting directed against Japanese Americans using microdata from the 1940 Census took place and that similar efforts directed against other groups have apparently continued (see W. Seltzer and M. Anderson and S. El Badry and D. W. Swanson). It should be understood that targeting is not a scientific research tool but one used in intelligence and police work.

Therefore, I urge the ASA to begin to address these abuses more explicitly. One way to do so would be to add something like the following to the ASA Code of Ethics:

Research involving race or ethnicity should be conducted in a manner that neither uses these concepts to demean the group(s) studied nor is designed to use these concepts as proxies for undesirable traits or an inclination toward criminal behavior. In no case will ASA members assist in using race/ethnicity classifications to target individuals or population subgroups for human rights abuses.

Of course, this text goes somewhat beyond targeting to cover research aimed at racial and ethnic stereotyping of the kind seen in the hate mongering that frequently precedes human rights abuses and, in the extreme, genocide (see H. Fein and A. Oberschall).

Given the proactive stance the ASA has taken on the value of collecting data on race and ethnicity, it is incumbent on us to be equally proactive in discouraging the misuse of such data. This discouragement should be explicit in our Code of Ethics.

William Seltzer, Fordham University


El Badry, S. and D. W. Swanson. 2007. “Providing census tabulations to government security agencies in the United States: The case of Arab Americans.” Government Information Quarterly24(2):470–87.

Fein, H. 1990. “Genocide: A Sociological Perspective.” Current Sociology—La sociologie contemporaire 38(1):27.

Oberschall, A. 2000. “Utopian Visions: Engaged Sociologies for the 21st Century: Achieving Basic Survival—Preventing Genocide.” Contemporary Sociology 29(1):2–3.

Seltzer, W. and M. Anderson. 2007. “Census Confidentiality under the Second War Powers Act (1942-1947).” Presented at the Population Association of America, March 30, 2007, New York www.uwm.edu/~margo/govstat/integrity.htm.

Rejoinder to Professor Persell

One of the objections that Caroline Persell raised to my Footnotes article, “AP or Not AP: That Is the Question” (December 2007), is that there isn’t enough empirical evidence to inform sociologists’ decisions about how to improve high school sociology courses. Specifically, she wants to see— as we all do—“recent, representative data.” Thanks to the ASA’s Teaching Enhancement Fund, I recently completed a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 high schools. As I reported in my original article, less than 40 percent of traditional high schools nationwide offer a sociology course. Given my citation of this ongoing research, I was surprised to read Persell’s suggestion that “How widely sociology is taught in U.S. high schools is an important empirical question on which we need valid and reliable data based on a representative national sample.” My study—which, again, I cited in my article—provides the answer to exactly that question.

Persell’s second observation is that my argument is just plain wrong. She cites psychology as a discipline in which, once it instituted an advanced placement (AP) course, “teachers appear[ed] and/or bec[a]me qualified.” This is a fairly popular claim that has no basis in the type of empirical research that Persell rightly calls for. Indeed, one might ask: How exactly do teachers suddenly “appear and/or become qualified”? The short answer is they don’t (Ernst and Petrossian 1996).

Persell correctly argues that sociologists need to discuss strategies for improving high school courses and for increasing the ASA’s involvement in them. But two counterpoints must be raised. The first is that Persell seems suddenly to agree with me. small_green


Back to Front Page of Footnotes