As the U.S. political system moves toward concepts of group (rather than individual) civil rights, ethnicity has emerged as a major civil grouping principle. An ethnic group shares a cultural and biological heritage that typically derives from ancestral territoriality but may persist long after the parent population has dispersed. The success of ethnic groups in gaining special privileges (perhaps justified by past disadvantages) encourages the proliferation of claimant groups. To support ethnic politics, the Bureau of the Census is charged with a growing agenda of ethnic identification and enumeration. Because ethnicity is partly ascribed, partly achieved, and partly asserted, the Bureau has been unable to devise a scientific basis for ethnic identification. This paper analyzes the interplay of political and scientific issues in ethnic identification and recommends some improvements over current practice.
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