March 14, 2014

U.S. Census looking at big changes in how it asks about race and ethnicity

proposednewcensusrace
Experimental question combines race and Hispanic ethnicity.

The Census Bureau has embarked on a years-long research project intended to improve the accuracy and reliability of its race and ethnicity data. A problem is that a growing percentage of Americans don’t select a race category provided on the form: As many as 6.2% of census respondents selected only “some other race” in the 2010 census, the vast majority of whom were Hispanic.

Six percent may seem small, but for an agency trying to capture the entire U.S. population (nearly 309 million in 2010) every 10 years, that number results in millions of people unaccounted for. This pattern of response led to the bureau’s “most comprehensive effort in history to study race and ethnic categories,” according to Census officials Nicholas Jones and Roberto Ramirez. Increasingly, Americans are saying they cannot find themselves” on census forms, Jones said.

Many communities, including Hispanics, Arabs and people of mixed race, have said they’re unsure of how to identify themselves on census forms.

2010censusrace
Current Census form asks about race and Hispanic ethnicity separately.

The 2010 Census form asked two questions about race and ethnicity. First, people were asked whether they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin. Then they were asked to choose one or more of 15 options that make up five race categories — white, black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander. A separate question about Hispanic origin has been asked of all households since 1980, and the census form specifically instructs respondents that Hispanic origins are not races.

To address concerns about a rising share of “some other race” selections, a combined race and ethnicity question is under consideration for 2020, in which people would be offered all the race and Hispanic options in one place. They could check a box to identify as white, black, Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander or some other race or origin. They would be offered a line under each category to supply more detail about their origin, tribe or race. Examples of this include: German, African American, Mexican, Navajo, Asian Indian and Samoan.

The Census Bureau’s goal is to reduce the number of people who select “some other race.” The category was added to the 1980 Census form to capture the small numbers of people who did not select one of the official race categories, and has grown to become the third-largest race category in the census, Jones said in a presentation this week to Pew Research Center.

In the 2010 census, many Hispanics were unsure which box to check in the race question. Hispanics accounted for more than 18.5 million of the 19 million people who checked “some other race” to describe themselves.”

As the bureau has conducted experimental surveys and focus groups with a new approach to writing the race and Hispanic questions, some Latino groups have voiced concern that eliminating the separate question about Hispanic origin would result in a decrease in the number of Hispanics counted by the census. However, that did not happen in the experimental survey collection, according to the Census Bureau. Because census data is vital to determining everything from how congressional districts are drawn to $400 billion in federal aid programs and enforcement of civil rights laws, the prospect of having one race or ethnic group’s numbers change is fraught with political consequences.

The bureau is continuing to research changes to the question wording. Agency officials intend to meet with Hispanic advocacy groups this spring and others interested in potential changes to the race-Hispanic questions to get feedback. It plans to test a combined race and ethnicity question on its Current Population Survey next year and on its American Community Survey in 2016.

But a lot of work remains. Questionnaire changes would have to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget, which determines and defines the race and ethnicity categories. Any proposed topics must be submitted to Congress by 2017. Question wording is due to Congress the following year.

Here are some more detailed findings from the Census Bureau’s Alternative Questionnaire Experiment presentation:

  • Combining race and ethnicity into a single question did not result in a reduction of the proportion of the population identifying as Hispanic.
  • Among those who identified as Hispanic, however, there was a decline in the number of people who wrote in a specific origin group. For Hispanics, the decrease was driven by people of Mexican descent, according to census officials.
  • The selection of “some other race” declined to less than 1% of respondents when race and ethnicity were combined into one question, according to results cited by census officials. The category was chosen by as many as 7% when race and ethnicity were asked in the experimental and standard variations of the two-question form.
  • The proportion of people who did not respond at all to race and ethnicity questions also declined in the experiment. About 1% percent did not answer the combined question. When the questions were separated, 3.5% to 5.7% did not respond to the race question and 4.1% to 5.4% did not respond to the Hispanic origin question.
  • Despite concerns that the combined question would lead to less data about Afro-Latinos, the proportion of Hispanics who also reported as black was not statistically different in the separate-question or combined-question format, bureau officials said. The bureau will soon release more detail about this and other race reporting by Latinos.

Topics: Race and Ethnicity, U.S. Census

  1. is a Writer/Editor at the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project.

  2. Photo of D’Vera Cohn

    is a Senior Writer at the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project.

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40 Comments

  1. Jeremy1 week ago

    Let me first state that race/ethnicity questions are difficult questions to ask and there are a lot of issues with the generalizations that get associated with the responses.

    Question 8 above in the graphic is asking about your cultural heritage, and not about your physical characteristics, as it relates to Mexican, Spanish, Cuban, etc. cultural influences.

    Question 9 is “generally” getting more at what are the common physical characteristics that make you who are you are and commonly take into account ancestry, but it is still self identified. The U.S. Census Bureau states “the racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.” I stated physical characteristics because our social definitions are typically based on physical appearance. There is still flaws in this as someone pointed out below, I could be “white”, but from South Africa. Am I African-American? White? I would generally say the person is white since they still have European ancestry, but I’m still making that decision for them and it’s not up to me.

    Do I think these categories put people in boxes that are aligned with stereotypes? Yes. Do I like them…meh. But as of right now these categories have been shown that there are very real differences between people of different races and ethnicities in the areas of poverty, educational attainment, employment, etc. These “groupings” are important until they no longer show up as an inequity.

    Also, the category of mixed race is becoming more common across the U.S. and the world. Perhaps eventually we will be just “human”.

    Reply
  2. Kernos3 weeks ago

    I’ve usually checked other and entered ‘probably human’.

    Reply
  3. Mike1 month ago

    Well.. when Mexican is not listed and there’s no option for “other” and it tells me to answer BOTH questions what am I suppose to put?

    Reply
    1. John1 week ago

      I was insulted by the designation White – not Hispanic on the last census and refused to answer the question per se. I entered American Caucasian instead. There is too much emphasis being placed on Hispanics when they only compromise 17.1% of the population and even less when you factor out the illegals. As far as I am concerned, you are either American or you are not. Calling someone African-American or Mexican-American is a disservice to our country. I am proudly an American of (fill in the blank). While my ancestors may have from Europe, I do not consider myself to be a European-American. That question was resolved when the United States won its independence. Its time for the PC folks to back off.

      Reply
  4. P. Avion1 month ago

    The US Census’ “race” question will continue to become ever-more meaningless as long as it attempts to separate and group things in ways that have little or no meaning. There is no such race as “White” or “Hispanic.” Hispanic is a cultural identification; one may be Hispanic and Bback, Asian, etc.

    “White” means very little whatsoever.

    ***Simply rename the question “ethnic identification(s)” and create an alphabetized list of possibilities.***

    Abolish the whole “race” question. Not to be trite, but to echo the words of others here, there really is no “race” but one.

    These amorphous, misguided groupings are only guaranteed to frustrate people in ever-new ways, and every new combination will create a new omission.

    The question needs to be remodeled in a more intelligent and forward-thinking way; otherwise I fear the Census will continue to create more confusion, not less.

    Reply
  5. P. Avion1 month ago

    If:
    - Your parents are Asian
    - You were raised in Colombia and
    - Came to the United States

    … would you be “Asian” or “Hispanic?”

    You would certainly be of an Asian “race,” if such a concept can even be said to exist.

    Under this new idiotic “experimental” question, you would have to choose one or the other.

    What if you’re hispanic and your parents are both black?

    These racial questions are meaningless, and need to be expunged from our national institutions.

    Reply
  6. janet silcox1 month ago

    I AM diversity. All in one package.

    Reply
  7. janet silcox1 month ago

    Oh yes. And those who think you are “African-American” meet my white friends who just moved to the United States and became naturalized Americans from South Africa. It just doesn’t fly!

    Reply
  8. janet silcox1 month ago

    The whole subject of race is simply offensive. What does it matter what RACE or ETHNICITY a person is. With so much push for affirmative action and the all inclusive list provided by the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and additional amendments and EOs, it seems that every one is a protected class anymore. With acceptation of pure white European bloodline men, we are all a protected class. That is unless one of those guys is a VET, disabled, transgender or gay, then he becomes a protected class too. I am an American. That should be a Bona fide race by now. For Pete’s sake people. I say we all choose “other” from now on in protest of this ridiculous debate.

    Reply
  9. Anon2 months ago

    If they’re going to give hispanic as an ethnicity option they should have it as a race, mestizo has become a race, whether people want to accept it or not, sure there are whites and blacks who may come from Latin America, but when you think of hispanic you think of mestizo, I’m one of the people who chose other, with the growing hispanic population the census is going to have to list hispanic as a race.

    Reply
  10. Min Zee2 months ago

    My father is Polish Jew and my mother is of Mexican Ancestry. I am not Hispanic, Latino, I am American as were my parents. Why is it so important to identify our ethnicity and not our nationality? Who is white anyway? What is considered black? Mexicans have always been of mixed ethnicity (weather European mix, Asian, Middle Eastern mix, depending on when immigrants of the world ended up in Mexico as opposed to the U.S…If a dark skinned Egyption, or Indian is consider “white” and a blond hair, blued eyed Mexican is not (although his ancestors at some point were) …identifiying people by “color” of skin is stupid and has always been stupid. When their are black-Americans that are also of mixed race and we only identify them by “skin color” is also stupid…I think what holds a country together and eliminates racism is to identify people as a nationality…no matter the race or ethnicity. Why is it necessary to identify someone by ethnicity. I am American…period, I pledge allegiance to this country and I am proud of it, in spite of the discrimination my ancestors felt and I have witnessed in my lifetime…In America we can at least speak out against it and try to make things right, even if it takes a lifetime….that should always be our goal…I am not who my ancestors were, I live in the present, have never visited Poland and I was not born in Mexico. I am tired of feeling like a foreigner in my own country because of my ethnic background…who cares. In such a diverse country, especially in the state of California…I am influenced by many ethnicities and enjoy their cultures, like my own, and we can celebrate our “ethnic cultures” but at the end of the day I am American and that is how I would like to be identified. My Mexican-American side of the family has certainly contributed to our country’s freedom as several of my uncles, and cousin fought in WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, etc…for the privilege to become Americans and to call ourselves American. You have called me “wetback, Mexican, Chicano/a, Mexican-American, and now Hispanic and Latina…????? I am American! all of these ethnicities make up who Americans are…and we should look beyond that…and just come together as one nation.

    Reply
  11. Gary Holliday2 months ago

    There are two thoughts here. Should our census address race and ethnicity or just ethnicitgy alone. Personally, I think that our country is made up of people who represent many ethnic backgrounds. Second our Constitution establishes that people in this country are equal, in essence a plural society. Since we’re all equal we should answer, “I am an American”, instead of Africian American, or Asian American. The Constitution does not distinguish these subgroups; however, it appears that there are many who encourage this approach to answering who we are. The idea of sub groups such as Asian American, African American, or Hispanic American tends to break down our identity to the point that many don’t knw who they are are who the should show allegience to. I’m afraid that should this country continue in this direction it will eventuall fracture into sub cultures wanting independence from the US or even yet completely destroying the United States from within. It is my belief that no country can stand if they’re divided. Rome never lost its identity and lasted for some 1,300 years.

    Reply
  12. Jack Purse2 months ago

    Keep it simple. White, black, brown or yellow should be enough.

    Reply
    1. John1 week ago

      There are relatively few truly black people and unless you qualify as an albino, there are darn few really white people. I don’t think I have ever met a “redskin” and I cannot recall having ever met someone with yellow skin unless they had jaundice. :-) The point being, the politically correct folks attempt to pigeon hole people and for what?

      Reply
  13. Tired of RACE BAITING2 months ago

    Our government and certain factions of our American society is obsessed with race and color. WHY? Why should benefits and/or voting districts be determined by RACE or COLOR? We are all supposed to be equal–in the eyes of God and government.

    Reply
  14. Nick3 months ago

    Please add a seperate race for Indians, Pakistanis and Afghanis. We are not Asian, we have nothing to do with Cambodians, Chinese, Koreans or Japanese. Our genes and culture are completely different.

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Hilts2 months ago

      Indians, Pakistanis, and Afghanis are not *East* Asian, but are still Asian. I agree with you, however, that perhaps the “Asian” category could be more clearly divided into East Asia and South Asia.

      And much of East Asia has a lot to do with India, culturally speaking. Buddhism, historically a predominant religion of East Asia, comes from India. And in Korea, one of our queens of legend, Hŏ Hwang-ok, is said to be from India.

      Reply
  15. Jeremiah K.H3 months ago

    Hispanics should be considered white even if you are dark. If you were a dark hispanic person, you should be Native American and minimally white because you wouldn’t have a hispanic last name if your’e just Native American. To clarify my answer, spanish people (europeans=white) conquer the native americans (aztecs, incas, mayans) which caused to mix genes and create people with ‘white’ and ‘native american’ ancestry. Hispanics, Italians, Germans, Irishman, etc. are generally white. The ‘white’ race generally includes europeans (irish,german,hispanics,scottish) ,middle eastern ( arabs, jews or hebrews, lebanese,etc.) and north africans ( egyptians, libyans, morrocans, etc.).

    Reply
  16. Lydia L. Hays3 months ago

    The “race” category terminology is a misnomer; all humans on earth belong to one “race” — the human race. 99.9% of all humans on earth have the same genes; about 1 percent of the common genes is attributable to shading of skin, eyes, hair looks, etc., probably affected by the geographical area/climate in which the person (and preceding generation/s) lives (or has lived).

    Ethnicity comes closer to the mark of what shapes a person, including socio-linguistic, and other cultural factors. Change the paradigm away from “race.”

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Hilts2 months ago

      You are correct. We have this love-hate relationship with race that seeks to diminish its meaning by pointing out how it’s a social construct, not a biological one, but at the same point, we perpetuate its importance because we know that so much of our society is built around people’s reactions to other people’s (and their own) superficial characteristics ascribed to race.

      Reply
    2. Min Zee2 months ago

      I absolutely agree…change the paradigm away from race and even ethnicity.. I say.identify your nationality, not your race or ethnicity.

      Reply
  17. handcrank4 months ago

    It is time the government, both state and federal, got out of the race business. It’s racism, utilized by unscrupulous people to pander to the lowest common denominator…and then pass bogus laws. Groupism is the heart of evil, a license to kill.

    Reply
  18. Brandon4 months ago

    Somebody please educate me on why in 2014 caucasians and Europeans still identify as white instead of Caucasian/European American?

    Reply
  19. MarTan WatBur4 months ago

    If the point of the census is to identify for race and ethnicity, then why not have a blank box that allows people to self identify? This would negate the current issues of the inadequate categories that people are forced to be boxed into and provide a more accurate census.

    Reply
  20. ET4 months ago

    I guess I havent really thought about why this is such a big issue- plus, all the categories have always been so vague. What will change or what impact will this have? What do they use or need this information?

    Reply
  21. grad student4 months ago

    Having to select a race on the census form can be seen as institutionalizing the marginalization of non-white, socially constructed race groups. Furthermore, what is the purpose of these changes and whose interests do the changes serve?

    Reply
  22. HH4 months ago

    I find it interesting that although we agree that race is socially constructed, we are still trying to impose these notions of ‘one race’ and ‘one category’ to a population of Americans that are constantly changing- constantly mixing, and constantly pushing the boundaries of what categories of race mean, and the range of peoples who are, and can be included.

    Reply
    1. Raceless2 months ago

      Personally think that eliminating ALL mention of race/ethnicity would be a healthy beneficial change for all of us. Make it ILLEGAL to even bring up race or color, and maybe all the current race-baiting and whining would die down. We have more important problems to focus on, and RACE/COLOR is a deliberate distraction away from our focus on our real problems, as a nation and as people trying to live our private lives. FORGET RACE!

      Reply
  23. Patrizio Cavaliere4 months ago

    Why not have a seperate category for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern people?

    “White” refers to the Nordic subrace.

    Reply
    1. Jeremiah K.H3 months ago

      it is because middle east are too close to europe and generally europeans and middle easterns have very common genes.

      Reply
  24. Jorge Ramos4 months ago

    What was the purpose of ever providing Hispanics, and only Hispanics, with a separate ethnic category? According to Pew’s own research, it isn’t the prefered way for us to identify ourselves –most of us prefer national origin. The only reason I can think of for adding this category on the census was to unfairly give us outsized political weight.

    Reply
  25. Stephen Higley4 months ago

    Why not ask Hispanic or Latinos if they are Mestizo? Mexico is approximately 10% White (the elite that generally don’t emigrate); 60% Mestizo (white + indian) and 30% Native Americans. Blacks/White people in Latin America are sometimes referred to as Zambos.

    What is the problem? Are we afraid to use the term Mestizo?

    Reply
    1. Johnny U4 months ago

      Some may be uncomfortable with using a term that originates in the Spanish Caste System, but you are right that “Mestizo” would be most accurate in describing the mixed heritage of Latin American-origin populations and their descendants. This is not just the case in Mexico. The term no longer signifies a 50/50 split (European/Native American), it has become a catch-all for any admixture.

      Reply
      1. Jeremiah K.H3 months ago

        europeans=tech. white= all hispanics are have white ancestry

        Reply
      2. Carmen2 months ago

        Mestizo refers to people who are Spanish and Indian. It’s not a catch-all for any group.

        Reply
    2. Jeremiah K.H3 months ago

      i agree with you.

      Reply
  26. Brian Wood4 months ago

    That 6.2% of the public in the most diverse nation on earth can’t find a suitable ready-made race or ethnicity category on the 2010 form by which to label themselves does not bother me. What does bother me is the idea that this 6.2% represents an error in the survey instrument, which can be corrected by providing yet more check-boxes and labels. Providing new categories of race or ethnicity won’t overcome the fundamental problem of defining what either race or ethnicity actually mean — either to the people self-reporting these data or the analyst or member of public trying to understand the data that result. Perhaps 6.2% of people who mark “some other race” are educated enough (maybe they took a single Anthropology class in college?) to realize that the question itself is broken. Race and ethnicity are poorly-defined concepts which conflate biology, development, language, geography, and other aspects of self-identity. Asking such a poorly defined question, and you should receive poorly defined answers.

    Reply
    1. Walton Bray4 months ago

      This could not have been any more well said. I clicked on the article hoping to see that that the Census Bureau is moving more towards measuring self-identification, and was surprised to see that instead the goal is for people to feel more encompassed by a “race,” an idea that is not well defined to begin with since, as you mentioned, the social definition of race combines several aspects of culture and heritage that allow for contradiction and confusion for people trying to identify themselves within the provided categories.

      Reply
  27. Migdalia DeJesus Torres4 months ago

    Why pursue categories and labels that are inadequate for the task at hand.
    They are often resented by those who should be properly identified.
    The use of the category ‘race’ is not accurate since all humans belong to the same race-homo sapiens sapiens. There are no sub-species of homo sapiens sapiens on earth as we today know it. The idea is to identify color, ethnicity and place of origin. In the case of Latinos there may be several identifying problems that need to be ironed out before the appropriate identity is reached. The categories need to be simplified and accurate.
    No one wants to be identified as a sub-species.
    Migdalia De Jesus Torres

    Reply
    1. Peter W4 months ago

      These are rather bold assertions about species and race, which you then confuse. We use the term ‘race’ instead of sub-species to show that there are different strands, I think. It’s fairly obvious and accepted that there ARE different (genetic) strands, surely – Chinese/Asians and Africans and Nordics are very different, even if they are the same homo sapiens – which may not be 100% uniform either!

      The purposes and political and budgetary implications of these categorizations – are explained in the article. Apparently it is necessary to trace at least one generation back to discover people’s origins, although perhaps citizenship should be the main criterion.
      I expect it is illegal immigrants who do not wish to reveal their (Hispanic etc) origins, as much as a resistance or being offended about their race/species. If we were all equal, and equally sure of our genealogy and (national/linguistic/religious) origins and so forth, then it would be much easier to box us all. Maybe it’s only the dominant types who wish to count and have invented ways to do so?
      But when/where so much miscegenation has occurred and so recently, and it appears so many new generation are of mixed breed/blood, then inevitably confusion is going to occur. The old labels did not seem to fit even me and I somehow objected to being w’Caucasian’ too. Sometimes, we simply do not know. But at least I knew who my parents were, and where from, and they were from a similar background to mine.

      Open ended Self reporting now would entail a vast amount of coding and reading of quite intricate descriptions I should imagine – mother was X and father (if known) was Y, and he in turn was a mix of A and B from his grandparents… they moved to the US from Country C in (date)… etc etc.

      What seems to have happened is that Governments still have countries and borders, but the dominant one (USA) is also the most keen on ‘globalisation’ and free movements of people combined with total laisser faire in terms of sexual reproduction; so the whole picture is now chaotic and hard to categorize in terms of old labels which are no longer appropriate for the new hybrid post-modern generation. (And how will the offspring of the new gay marriages be categorized?).

      In that sense, I agree that the core question is, given that social reality has run away from us, ‘Does it matter?’ and Why/how?

      Reply