Little Boxes

What are you thinking when you check those race and ethnicity boxes on forms and applications? Four CLA scholars have been studying the role those boxes play in maintaining and eradicating social inequality.


From the monumental, history-making act of genocide to the mundane misery of middle school, the classification of humans always seems to precede acts of cruelty and domination. CLA scholars offer fresh perspectives on the role institutions play in stigmatizing difference--and how those institutions can undo the damage.

In 2003, Californians who opened up their voter information guides were asked a loaded question. "When you're asked to check a government form with row after row of these rigid and silly little 'race' boxes, have you ever just wanted to say, 'None of your business; now leave me alone?' asked proponents of Proposition 54, a ballot initiative aimed at amending the state's constitution to prohibit state and local governments from collecting data pertaining to race in many contexts.

The initiative called attention to something that has become as inevitable in life as death and taxes: classification. For better or worse, we simply cannot get by in this world without checking boxes--or having boxes checked about us. From our race, sex, marital status, age, and citizenship to the religions we practice and the degrees we hold (or don't hold), we are all regularly described and tracked in terms of categories by institutions like the government.

Routine or not, proponents of Proposition 54 said the act of classification is often unnatural and never benign. Classification simply enables discrimination, which is harmful whether the target of discrimination is black or white, Latino or Asian, male or female, they argued. Opponents disagreed. Pretending that the world was colorblind, they said, would not make it so. It would only prevent institutions from collecting the information they need to monitor the gap between the ideal of equality and the reality of inequality--and to create remedies when the data show disparities.

Proposition 54 failed, but public policy makers throughout the country continue to wrestle with the practical and philosophical questions raised when institutions engage in racial and ethnic categorization. In historical and sociological studies, CLA researchers are providing crucial context for these questions. They're examining how the institutions that order our world--government agencies, universities, organized religions, courts--have classified people, often in ways that have harmed them. And, like those on both sides of the debate about colorblindness, they're thinking about how best to remedy past and continuing wrongs based on racial categorization.

How have communities stigmatized by institutions responded? To read more, go to reach.cla.umn.edu/littleboxes

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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on July 13, 2007 11:02 AM.

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