April 16, 2012

Classifying Race and Ethnicity

Q. Your surveys often show results based on “non-Hispanic whites” and “non-Hispanic blacks”. Why aren’t Hispanics counted in these categories?

A. In today’s multi-ethnic society, classifying people into racial and ethnic categories is increasingly difficult, yet remains an important aspect of understanding the diversity of views and values across segments of the public. Pew Research Center surveys assign people into racial and ethnic categories based on what people tell us about themselves. Most Pew Research studies use categories for race and ethnicity similar to those used by government agencies, including the Census Bureau, where Hispanics can be of any racial background and their numbers are reported separately from non-Hispanics for each race group.

The standard federal categories for race and ethnicity are defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and are employed not just for surveys, but also for medical research, school registration forms, mortgage lending applications and other administrative uses. These categories also are widely used by researchers and businesses in order to be consistent with federal standards.

The latest OMB standards, issued in 1997, require that data be collected and reported for five major race groups: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. The Census Bureau also reports data about people who are not included in those categories but are “some other race” and those who are mixed race-that is, included in more than one race group.

In addition, data are collected in a separate question asking whether someone is “Hispanic” or “Latino”; Hispanics or Latinos are an ethnic group based on family background or ancestral ties. Hispanics or Latinos may be of any race, and are asked the same race question as everyone else.

Although the races are defined as having origins in particular parts of the world, in reality race and Hispanic origin are self-defined. Census forms and other surveys allow people to choose their own race, and include themselves in more than one racial group. As explained by OMB, “The categories represent a social-political construct designed for collecting data on the race and ethnicity of broad population groups in this country, and are not anthropologically or scientifically based.”

In practice, the standard labels on the census form do not match the self-descriptions of many Hispanics. According to a recent Pew Hispanic Center report, “When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity,” about half of Hispanics (51%) most often identify themselves by their family’s country of origin, compared with 24% who prefer “Hispanic” or “Latino.” Similarly, about half of Hispanics say they are “some other race” (26%) or volunteer “Hispanic” or “Latino” (25%) when asked how they would describe their race.

Occasionally, you will see survey reports that show results only for non-Hispanic whites and/or non-Hispanic blacks but not Hispanics. That is not because Hispanic attitudes are not important, but we only report on Hispanics when the survey was conducted in Spanish and English and when enough interviews were conducted with Hispanics to report on their views accurately and reliably.

Cite this publication: Michael Suh. “Classifying Race and Ethnicity.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 16, 2012) http://www.pewresearch.org/2012/04/16/classifying-race-and-ethnicity/, accessed on July 22, 2014.