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Through the census and other methods of population data reporting, the United States has kept track of the racial makeup of the country's population since 1790.

Good and valid goals underlie this endeavor, the most obvious and important of which these days are civil rights enforcement and monitoring, and disease prevention and control.The first is necessary because of past injustice and because we have not reached the utopian ideal of color blindness in private and public dealings. The second because, despite scientific debate about whether there actually are races, some diseases occur more frequently in some races than others.

Unfortunately, at least since 1977, the method of collecting population statistics by race has been seriously flawed.

In that year, an obscure regulation called OMB Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 was enacted. It requires standardized collection and reporting of racial data by and to the federal government.

In the computer age, ease of data collection became, as it often does, more important than accuracy, and government questionnaires that include race became multiple choice affairs. Black, white, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaskan Native. If you live in this country, according to the government, you belong in one of those categories.

Individuals with one parent in each of the four federally acknowledged races are confronted, when responding to their government's questions about their race, with a choice: select one race to the exclusion of the other. Since school registration is one of the many times in life the government wants to know someone's race, the requirement to make this decision confronts children at an early age.

Ashleigh Miller, whose mother is white and whose father is black, has already been through it twice. Last year in Florida, a school official told Ashleigh and her mother that she could not be registered unless she picked black or white. A job transfer took the family to Alabama for the 1996 school year. There, the black high school principal told them Ashleigh would be entered upon the records as white, because she looked white to the principal.

Historically, persons of mixed race have had a hard time in this and many other cultures. Cultural norms and attitudes about race are deep-rooted and heartfelt.

What many multiracial people are demanding is simple: They want their country to have the statistical tools to prevent discrimination against them and to track their health risks. Groups with a variety of political agendas are resisting. What they forget, or ignore, is that rights in this country belong to individuals and not groups.

If it is worthwhile counting the population by race, it is worth doing it right. The federal government should amend all of its data-gathering methods and tools so that persons of mixed ancestry can respond to them honestly, with pride in their diverse heritage. All they ask is to be counted. They want to count.