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ASA Briefs Congress on Policy Role of Racial and Ethnic Data

by Susan Halebsky Dimock, ASA 2003 Congressional Fellow

In Congress, information is essential, but the time a congressional staffer has to track down information is very limited. One key way staff acquire knowledge, especially on the House side, is by attending briefings. The ASA, along with the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, and the Population Resource Center, held an unusually well-attended briefing on the importance of collecting racial and ethnic data. The briefing was held in part to publicize ASA’s official statement on race (The Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race) and was especially relevant in light of the California ballot measure, the Racial Privacy Initiative, [see Public Forum, p. 7] that would prohibit state and local governments from classifying current or prospective students, contractors, or employees by race, ethnicity, color or national origin. [For more information about the briefing, visit]

Social vs. Genetic Reality

Troy Duster, Professor of Sociology at New York University, began the discussion and succinctly stated the essence of ASA’s official statement on race, saying that despite biological scientists’ arguments that race is increasingly irrelevant, race remains central to understanding many social processes. “So long as race is being used to decide access to jobs, … education, health care, housing, mortgage loans, and as long as race is being used as a stratifying practice, independent of its ‘genetic, biological reality,’ its social outcomes are what is of transparent interest to social scientists, policymakers, and, ultimately, to social justice concerns. That is, even if we can show that at the DNA level we are all alike 99.99 percent, if actors in a society routinely use a social category [of race] to exclude or include, then it is that which is the source of sustained empirical investigation and about which [scientists and policymakers] need to be mindful.”

Health Disparities Become Transparent

Following Duster, Brian Smedley, Study Director of the Institute of Medicine’s report Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, presented information gained about medical treatment through the use of race and ethnicity data. Smedley noted that the report, in answering “the question of whether or not patients of color receive a lower quality of health care, unequivocally, the answer is ‘yes.’” Disparities “are found across a range of clinical settings, teaching and nonteaching, private, and public. More importantly, these disparities are associated with higher mortality among racial and ethnic patients.” Smedley concluded, “Medical care does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs in a context in which racial and ethnic disparities across a wide range of sectors of American life are persistent. We conclude that many sources contribute to these disparities, including aspects of health systems, heath care providers, patients, utilization managers. All can contribute to disparities in complex ways, but without data to understand where and how these disparities occur, we would be unable to detect these patterns.”

Race and Law Enforcement

Finally, Jerry Sanders, President of Virtual Capital of California, former Chief of Police for San Diego, and Vice-Chair of San Diego’s United Way, explained how, in the case of law enforcement, it is essential to be constantly aware of race and to collect race and ethnic data. “We can’t tell if we are serving the populations that we police if we don’t know how we’re doing already. If we don’t have that baseline data then we can’t put policies into place, we can’t put training into place… When I looked at the training that we were given and we were giving, it is no wonder that racial profiling occurs throughout police departments around the country. You stop people who look suspicious in neighborhoods. A white person never looks suspicious in a community of color to a white officer; a person of color always looks suspicious to a white officer in a white community. If that’s the type of training in place, then you are molding racial profiling.” In San Diego, he used racial and ethnic data to make changes in his police department to ensure that the police force was more diverse to better reflect the communities it policed, and to ensure a more diverse staff to train these officers.

The ASA briefing was a huge success. The standing-room-only audience (nearly 160 people) was unheard of among the Capitol Hill-savvy staff of the co-sponsoring organizations, and subsequent media coverage by the Associated Press (AP), Research USA, as well as the well-regarded science policy publication Washington Fax, publicized the briefing’s key research messages. The AP article appeared in Newsday, CNN, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, and MSNBC, and other significant online and printed outlets. A key to the success was in large part attributed to the preparations by the sponsoring organizations, the topic, and a pinch of luck. It was also very helpful, from the media’s standpoint, especially, that the presenters’ arguments were highly accessible and relevant to the audience. At the briefing, the ASA distributed its succinct position statement on race, The Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race, which congressional staff will hopefully refer to when they need to outline an argument for their member of Congress on the importance of collecting race and ethnic data.

ASA Congressional Fellow Susan Halebsky Dimock, is serving on the staff of Senator Jack Reed (D-RI). This is the third article in a series she is contributing to Footnotes.