WASHINGTON -- Politicians know that when you ask Americans about race, you're guaranteed a good debate. Salespeople know that race does more than provoke talk -- it gets results in the marketplace.
Bountiful practical applications are planned for all the detailed racial breakdowns in the new census. They'll be used to hustle phone cards, teach newcomers English, get salsa into school cafeterias, break up gerrymanders.
It seems like everyone in the public sector, private sector and nonprofit sector is ready to use the numbers one way or another.
Census numbers released this week show an America more diverse than ever, with rapidly growing minorities, while growth among whites is slowing down.
The biggest market for census data is the federal government itself. In 1992, two years after the last census, the Census Bureau surveyed federal agencies to see how they used its information, and found $185 billion in government spending affected one way or another by the findings.
The most prominent use of race data is by Justice and Commerce Department officials who determine whether legislative boundaries gerrymander minorities out of their right to fair representation.
But there's also the hot sauce factor: A "Buy America" provision restricts Agriculture Department purchases for school lunches, food banks and the like to American-made food -- but is waived in areas where immigrant kids may prefer products from the old country. The department uses census data to track those areas.
Linda Gage, who heads California's Demographic Research Unit, uses census data to track the need for teachers of English as a second language, and to provide information to nonprofit groups disbursing race-based grants.
Even in Iowa -- 95 percent white, 98 percent non-Hispanic -- state librarian Beth Hinning gets requests for racial breakdowns from public health officials, who are particular about having things quantified.
This year, with the census recording multiple races for the first time, she said she would dutifully break data down into all 63 potential racial classifications -- although most such columns will record zero.
"We'll give them all 63 if they ask for it, and we might even give it to them if they don't," Hinning said.
Multiracial and multiethnic groups lobbied hard for the multiple race question, and 2.4 percent, or 6.8 million of the country's 281 million people, checked off two or more races.
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