From a news article in today's Boston Globe about the racial composition of the City of Boston's workforce:
Newly hired employees fill out forms, Leonard said, that ask them to indicate their gender and to identify their race or ethnicity in one of five categories set by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Almost all new workers check a box, Leonard said, and the employment commission recommends visual observations for those who do not.
Sure enough, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity web site, in a question and answer section, contains the following:
Q: What should an employer do if an employee refuses to self-identify using the new race and ethnic categories?A: An employer may obtain the necessary information from existing employment records or visual observation if an employee declines to self-identify. Employment records and visual identification may be used only if an employee refuses to self-identify.
Another page on the EEOC site states, "When individuals are hired, each must be given a self-identification form to complete. If an individual declines to complete the form, the agency must complete it by visual identification or, if available, information the employee provided previously."
The use of visual identification or observation to detect race was an issue in a recent court case that the EEOC brought against Kaplan, the education subsidiary of Graham Holdings (formerly the Washington Post Co.). Three judges who ride the Sixth Circuit — Keith, Cook, and Kethledge — looked highly unkindly on the EEOC's use of a team of five "race raters" to "identify race by visual means" based on drivers' license photographs.
Forcing racial categorizations on individuals who don't want to be categorized is a subset of the way the federal government imposes regulations and compliance costs on individuals, businesses, and local governments. I can certainly understand the desire to track racial progress or detect racial discrimination, but the whole business of "visual observation" for racial categories is a great subject for further journalistic exploration, litigation, or congressional oversight.