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The Race Classification Gap

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Growing up as a person of Korean and Lebanese descent, I was proud of my heritage and enjoyed discussing it with my peers. While few had ever met anyone with such an ethnic background before, people were always eager to learn more. I always felt that it was a valued part of my identity - something that could happen in few other places but the United States. However, when it came time to apply to colleges, I quickly realized that conveying who I was would not be so easy.

On many of the applications I read, the choices were limited to "Caucasian," "Black or African-American," "Asian," "Native American," and "Other." Some offered the opportunity to "write-in" specific races. On the whole, a significant portion of colleges did not allow me to represent myself accurately on the application. This issue symbolizes a significant problem with race identification in America, one that, with the increasing diversity in this country, deserves to be addressed with all possible expediency.

University admissions often state that their reasons for asking demographic information are legal and informational only. From a research and sociological perspective, it is understandable. However, the current system falls far short of the detail that educational institutions could and should collect. For example, many schools prohibit "ticking" more than one race category, or instead provide a category entitled "multiracial." This forces someone like me to either "choose" a race to be represented as or indicate "multiracial," which on its own means very little - nearly every person in America is "multiracial" by some standard.

Examining college life in practice further indicates that the need for students to be able to identify themselves accurately is important. For example, in colleges throughout the country, affinity groups provide an important support network for students. Often times these clubs are drivers of social life for college students and hold events that welcome the entire college community. Currently, these clubs are maintained solely with the assumption that, for example, some applicants who check the box for "Asian" will turn out to be Japanese such that students of that particular group are adequately represented on campus.

This "classification gap" has other serious implications. For example, a 2007 study by Princeton and University of Pennsylvania researchers revealed that black students from immigrant families (defined as those who have emigrated from the West Indies or Africa) represented 41% of the black population of Ivy League schools vs. 13% of the black population of 18-19 year-olds in the United States. This information is striking and important in our nation's focus on closing the achievement gap; however, the status quo of race classification leaves us unable to track such statistics on a uniform, nationwide level.

Speaking of the nation, the Census suffers from similar issues. For example, the 2010 Census form had some select races listed with "tick boxes" along with additional write-in boxes. It is unlikely that hand-written entries can be tabulated with the same efficiency as the typical "tick boxes." As such, we lack the ability to accurately collect Census data that is in turn used to inform a variety of research and policy decisions.

The classification system in its current form also feels inherently wrong. An individual from Jamaica has a very different upbringing and cultural perspectives than an African-American individual from Boston. However, under the current system both would feel compelled to "tick" the "Black" category. Similarly, an Egyptian and British individual would both feel compelled to "tick" the "Caucasian" category. In reality, to lump these people together under one category seems inaccurate at best and irresponsible at worst.

So what is the solution? I believe that both college admissions officers and the government care about tracking race on a more detailed level; however, they are unsure of a method that can be tabulated and analyzed as efficiently as the "tick box" system. Fortunately, the University of Hawaii's application presents a good platform in which to build. Instead of having typical race boxes, the university has certain 2-letter acronyms for various races (CH for Chinese, TO for Tongan, etc.) that an applicant can indicate. Such a system could be scaled up to operate efficiently - such as including a standard legend of acronyms to be used with every college application or Census form - that would allow more detailed race classification data in an efficient way. The implications of such data for research purposes would be enormous, and the additional effort involved over the long term would be relatively minimal. In addition, the choice of indicating race should be voluntary, as anyone who does not wish to offer such information should not be forced to do so. Would this new system result in the perfect race data in the United States? Certainly not. But it's a fantastic start.

Some people may not want to identify with a certain race, but those who do should be empowered, not discouraged. America prides itself on the diversity of its people. It's time to give us the tools to accurately identify ourselves. Doing so would not only give us fascinating sociological insights, but also offer a voice to the millions of people across the country who simply want to proudly say on paper what they proudly feel inside.

Daniel Arrigg Koh is a second-year MBA candidate at Harvard Business School. He holds a B.A. in Government from Harvard College. He can be reached at dkoh@mba2011.hbs.edu.