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Race queries on forms draw fire

September 30, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Only two people attended a Hagerstown hearing on racial designations Tuesday night, but both recounted experiences with a classification system that a state task force is grappling with.

Stephanie Davis, a South Hagerstown High School senior, said she dreads filling out school forms every year because there is no box that reflects her mixed heritage.

"I have never gotten a category that fits me. I don't think it's fair to pick one side of my family over the other," she said. "I feel as though I am both (black and white). You can't pick one over the other."

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Boonsboro resident Michael Sirbaugh, who adopted two mixed-race children, said he had the same problem when he filled out school forms for his children.

"I told them none of them are correct and I don't want to make a false statement on an official document," he said. "I asked what would happen if I left it blank and they said, `Then, we'll pick one for you. You can't leave it blank.'"

Davis asked members of the task force why forms cannot have one race box: the human race.

Eliminating racial classification altogether, however, would be more complicated than it sounds, officials said.

Del. Anne Healey, D-Prince George's, who sponsored legislation that created the task force, said classifying by race is important for redressing racial discrimination.

Race also translates into millions of dollars, Healey said. Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed a 1995 bill that would have added a multiracial box to state forms because he feared it might jeopardize federal grants, she said.

But for people of mixed racial descent - many of whom live in Healey's diverse district - state forms often force them to make a false choice between black and white, she said.

It goes beyond school forms, Healey said. She said a number of state agencies collect information about people's racial backgrounds.

"It's offensive to people," she said.

The task force, which includes state lawmakers, parents, educators, a demographer and a genealogist, will make recommendations by Dec. 1. Healey said she believes it is possible to create a more accurate classification system while preserving information needed to retain grants.

One suggestion is to allow respondents to check all the boxes that apply. Another would allow people to check "other" and then explain why.

"Either one of those is acceptable, but putting down something that is false is not," Sirbaugh said. "As long as it can be an honest answer."

Said Davis: "I've felt strongly about this since second grade, when I first had to fill one of these out."

Monday's hearing, held at South High, was the first of five scheduled throughout the state. Healey said she expects turnout to be larger at future hearings as the issue receives increased publicity.

There are no further sessions scheduled for Western Maryland.

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