May 5, 2014

Millions of Americans changed their racial or ethnic identity from one census to the next

2010censusraceMillions of Americans counted in the 2000 census changed their race or Hispanic-origin categories when they filled out their 2010 census forms, according to new research presented at the annual Population Association of America meeting last week. Hispanics, Americans of mixed race, American Indians and Pacific Islanders were among those most likely to check different boxes from one census to the next.

The researchers, who included university and government population scientists, analyzed census forms for 168 million Americans, and found that more than 10 million of them checked different race or Hispanic-origin boxes in the 2010 census than they had in the 2000 count. Smaller-scale studies have shown that people sometimes change the way they describe their race or Hispanic identity, but the new research is the first to use data from the census of all Americans to look at how these selections may vary on a wide scale.

“Do Americans change their race? Yes, millions do,” said study co-author Carolyn A. Liebler, a University of Minnesota sociologist who worked with Census Bureau researchers. “And this varies by group.”

Why? There are many possibilities, although the researchers did not present any hard conclusions. By some measures, the data provide more evidence of Americans’ puzzlement about how the census asks separately about race and ethnicity. (The Census Bureau is considering revising its race and ethnicity questions for the next census, in 2020, in hopes of matching better how Americans think about this topic.) But there could be other reasons, too, such as evolving self-identity or benefits associated with being identified with some groups.

The Census Bureau granted the researchers restricted access to confidential data in return for a legally binding promise that they would not reveal details of any individual responses, and they produced their estimates by matching 2000 and 2010 census forms for the same people. Though they were able to analyze data for more than half the U.S population (and most of the 281 million counted in 2000), the amount of category-changing might be even higher in the total population, they said.

People of every race or ethnicity group altered their categories on the census form, but some groups had more turnover than others. Relatively few people who called themselves non-Hispanic white, black or Asian in 2000 changed their category in 2010, Liebler said. Responses by Hispanics dominated the total change, she said, but there was major turnover within some smaller race groups as well.

The largest number of those who changed their race/ethnicity category were 2.5 million Americans who said they were Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000, but a decade later, told the census they were Hispanic and white, preliminary data showed. Another 1.3 million people made the switch in the other direction. Other large groups of category-changers were more than a million Americans who switched from non-Hispanic white to Hispanic white, or the other way around.

Hispanics account for most of the growing number and share of Americans who check “some other race” on the census form. Many do not identify with a specific racial group or think of Hispanic as a race, even though it is an ethnicity in the federal statistical system. Census officials added new instructions on the 2010 census form stating that Hispanic ethnicity is not a race in an attempt to persuade people to choose a specific group. (That change, as well as other wording edits in the instructions to respondents between 2000 and 2010 may be one reason some people switched. The order of the questions and the offered categories did not change.) The Census Bureau is also testing a new race and Hispanic question that combines all the options in one place, rather than asking separately about race and Hispanic origin.

More than 775,000 switched in one direction or the other between white and American Indian or only white, according to preliminary data. A separate paper presented at the conference reported “remarkable turnover” from 2000 to 2010 among those describing themselves as American Indian. Ever since 1960, the number of American Indians has risen more rapidly than could be accounted for by births or immigration.

There also was considerable change within a decade’s time among some smaller race groups. For example, only one-third of Americans who checked more than one race in 2000 kept the same categories in 2010, according to preliminary data. Only two-thirds of non-Hispanic single-race Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders kept the same categories.

Previous research on people’s racial self-identification has found that they may change categories for many reasons, said demographer Sharon Lee of the University of Victoria in Canada, at the population conference. The question mode—whether people are asked in person, on a paper form, on the phone or online—makes a difference. Some people may change their category after they find out they had an ancestor of a different race, she said. Or they may decide there are benefits (such as priority in college admissions) to including themselves in a certain group.

Some category-changers were children in 2000 whose race was filled in by their parents, but by 2010 were old enough to choose for themselves, which may account for some of the change. Children in some groups in 2000—for example, white and black—were especially likely to be recorded in a different category in 2010, Liebler said. (Although she did not mention President Barack Obama, he chose to check only “black” on his 2010 census form, even though his mother was white and father black.)

Lee and Liebler said researchers need to account for the amount of change in people’s racial and Hispanic self-description in their work, but Lee cautioned that they should not overreact. “There is not a trivial amount of change,” she said, “but it’s not across every group.”

The analysis was done under a Census Bureau program to allow limited access to its confidential data for specific studies of important issues by outside researchers who agree not to reveal any personally identifying information about individuals. In this case, researchers did not have access to individual names, dates of birth or other personal information, because each person’s linked 2000 and 2010 forms were identified by a numerical code called a “personal identification key.”

The researchers only included in their analysis people living in households where someone in the family filled in their race or Hispanic origin. They excluded people whose details were supplied by neighbors or imputed by the Census Bureau, and those living in group quarters, such as college dormitories or prisons. They also dropped anyone who checked “some other race” and an additional race in 2000, because that category had an unusual amount of processing error. The researchers said the people they matched were not nationally representative.

Topics: Race and Ethnicity, U.S. Census

  1. Photo of D’Vera Cohn

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.


  1. Chris Cashman1 year ago

    Very difficult research, very hard article to write! Nice work, Ms. Cohn!

    I am looking forward to seeing how much gender change will be appearing from 2010 Census results to 2020 after the transgender movement we are seeing sweep the nation. Does Pew Research anticipate that this will be another case similar to race above, where people will be perplexed about what sex to choose, or perhaps the US Census Bureau will anticipate this and need to consider whether to indicate questions regarding biological gender and a separate question about self-identified gender?

  2. Anonymous1 year ago

    Why aren’t other ethnic groups ever mentioned?

    1. D’Vera Cohn1 year ago

      Responding to this and a previous similar comment: This posting is about how people responded on their census forms, and Census Bureau policy is to report data for only one ethnic group – people of Hispanic/Latino origin. [The bureau’s American Community Survey does ask a separate question about “ancestry,” which might be German, Irish, Egyptian, Somali, etc., but these ancestries are not considered races or ethnic groups.] The current policy is confusing to many people. You might be interested in this posting about some changes the Census Bureau is considering to its questions about race and origin, which describes the basic process now:…

  3. Anonymous1 year ago

    It is obvious tha the focus of your discussion is about people of Spanish speaking backgrounds. I do not see any other ethnic group mentioned in your discussion. Are we to believe that only people of Spanish speaking backgrounds have an ethnicity? All other groups are do not have one.

  4. CJ Stone1 year ago

    They’re becoming way too nosey about race. Most Americans are a mixture of ancestries. “white” just means light skin… you could be a mix of Latino, Aboriginal American, European and just look like a “white” person.

    You could be “black” and be a mix of Jamaican, European and all sorts of ancestries and just look “black” since that’s all “black” means is dark skin. It says nothing about your ancestry.

    So why even use such terminology? “White” says nothing about your ancestry. Light skinned Asians are white, light skinned semitic people are white, light skinned Latinos/Hispanics are white, light skinned Indians from India are white, goes on and on. Europeans do not have a patent on light/white skin.

  5. Tex Wood2 years ago

    The USA is no less racial than it was during the time of segregation. Only the beneficiaries of the legal preferential treatment have changed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered normal white folks who answer either hispanic or native-American on government forms. They do this in hopes they stay congruent with their employment white folks saying they are something other than what they are with hopes to get hired, promotion or accepted to a grad school under legal affirmative action programs. In short, normal folks in modern ‘Murika understand modern society is geared against them and and act accordingly to pay the bills and provide for their families.

  6. chain2 years ago

    why do americans change their racial or ethnic self-identification?

  7. Fermín2 years ago

    That will be insane because all Americans come from different races and ehtnicities, that’s like if I’m yellow or Chinese and say I’m the same as black or negro, L.O.L.

  8. Kimberly Holder2 years ago

    Why can’t the US Census simply count the population of the nation and only see them under one race?… The HUMANE Race.

  9. Toney Reese2 years ago

    What really show us racism is that white people can be German,English,Polish et. Asians can be Japannses,Chinanes,Korean,et.Spanish can be Mexican,Spanishes, Argentina,Honduran et. Black can be African or African American.What wrong it that Africa are just as diverise as any other ethnic grow but you put all people who have dark or black skin as Africian. Why is that?

    1. Kyle2 years ago

      I would suggest proof reading your comment before submitting it.

    2. Fermín2 years ago

      That’s because you have a racial complex what else?
      And Hispanic is not a race, an Argentine, Spaniard and some Colombians etc are also white or of European ancestry and black like some Cubans as well as white.

  10. rudy2 years ago

    Im chicano i put im native american i know my history im not Hispanic or latino i dont honor spain culture

    1. Adler Ismael Gustave2 years ago

      Hispanic does not mean you need to know Spain culture if you were born any part of Latin America you are Hispanic

      1. Anonymous1 year ago

        Does that mean that Haitians, Jamaicans, and Guyanans are also “Hispanic”

  11. Tom2 years ago

    Does the change of race actually change the racial influence of such race in a person?

  12. c.b.ford2 years ago

    The “experts” observations are so confusing it is a wonder anyone completes their census form. Note: how will you ID and separate the original African American (AA) citizens born here ( of former slave descendants) as opposed to the new residents born in Africa who come here, and birth children? Will these new children also be labeled African American, or what? Will the first group need to take on the designation of “original AA” or “native AA” (per our American Indians who took on this designation to separate themselves from the formerly labeled :East Indian). I respond to questions of race/ethnicity as an American born citizen. And lastly, what exactly makes one an expert?

  13. Ron Wong2 years ago

    It seems that today we are more concerned with minority status then American status. For the last six years you are cool to be part of a group and then we play groups against each other. I am Chinese-Canadian-English-Scottish-French-Spanish-Irish my DNA tests confirm. My wife is German-English-Scottish-Mormon so I tell my kids to be Americans.

  14. Arenia2 years ago

    I’m black, but I feel like a “tragic mulatto”, so I etiher check other or black & white.

    1. Adler Ismael Gustave2 years ago

      Hispanic does not mean you need to know Spain culture if you were born any part of Latin America you are Hispanic

  15. LM3 years ago

    The last time I received a 20-page booklet from the U.S. Census Bureau about two years ago, I was peeved! I don’t think illegal aliens even fill these forms out and I’m an American born citizen, it’s upsetting, because it seems like USCS is just a little too quick to categorize everyone who fills it out, when it’s not always that simple. Since then, I have had my ancestry DNA test done. Very interesting as I can hardly wait until the next time I have to fill that annoying form out, because I’m seem to be almost every box that is on there for a choice that I avoided filling out before!

    So if you find that people are changing their race and ethnicity, it may be that they now know what their true ancestry is, which can be a multiple of backgrounds/races from around the world! That’s me!

    I highly doubt that any one person is 100% of anything (may be a high percentage of something) but that’s another post for another day.

  16. Ann3 years ago

    Someone clearly didn’t ask anyone that worked for the Census or remembered getting interviewed by the Census. There’s no mysterious change or race here. During the 2010 Census it was on the forms and interview policies for those working on Census Survey teams that people who identified as only Latino/Hispanic origin were automatically defaulted as white on their race identity. I worked on those survey teams and helped with training. That policy was even formally covered in introduction training.

    If anything this is more a case of why the US Census Bureau opted to make the policy more explicit this time around than anything else (likely due to the processing errors when more than one race was identified as stated in the report). My community is pretty heavily Latino, so both the workers and those we surveyed were totally baffled by this, but back in 2010 us surveyors were basically just greatful to have an above minimum wage job.

  17. Veronica3 years ago

    All forms I have filled out which ask for ORIGIN and RACE do not include a “RACE” box for a Hispanic/Latin person. I am not any of those RACES listed. There never is an extra box to “fill in” the correct RACE, except on this form. In real life Black/African American people will consider me white before they consider me black. It’s happened, they’ve called me a White girl. Same thing with all the other races listed. White people will tell me I am NOT white, Chinese the same. I am a Mexican-American woman who has lived in the US my entire life, along with my parents & grandparents, can you tell me what my RACE is? QUESTION #9

    1. Luis Arroyo3 years ago

      If you are mestizo, you check “white”(Spaniard) and Native American. On “tribe”, write Aztec,Maya, or any other tribe from the part of Mexico you’re from.

      No es tan dificil.

      Not so difficult. 🙂

    2. Kalah Roché2 years ago

      Yes! Thank you. I am in the 8th grade and I am a Hispanic who has lived in the us my entire life. I had to take a school survey and they asked me what my race was. I am NONE of those races I tried ignoring the question and skipping it but it wouldn’t let me so I had to pick 2 or more races there goes more false information -_-

  18. Ismael3 years ago

    When the U.S. was considered a two race nation, Black and White, because others were “the invisible people,” the U.S. could manage this system of categorizing people. During that time Native-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Pacific Islanders who were U.S. citizens were in fact ignored, invisible and continue to this very day ignored. Now, that we have a milti-ethic/racial nation things are a bit more complicated. The worldview and soical constructs of the many groups has thrown a monkey wrench into the “American” social constructs of race. So, there are not clear definitions. Welcome to Babel! In a way, not a bad thing. We are all part of the HUMAN RACE.

    1. olderworker3 years ago

      I think the census forms added race boxes to the form as different groups came here over the decades –e.g., in the 1850’s, when a lot of Chinese people came to work on the railroads, a “Chinese” box was added, and then in the 1890’s, when Japanese people started coming to the U.S., a box was added for them, etc. The older forms just mention “Mexicans”; later ones say “Hispanic” and list a bunch of countries.

  19. chica3 years ago

    Someday there won’t be any boxes

    1. olderworker3 years ago

      In the U.S.? I highly doubt that we’ll ever surrender our love of categorization!

  20. Arba3 years ago

    A lot of ‘latino’ or ‘hispanic’ are mestizo (mix of ethnic groups). Native american (South/central america-native of course), black, white, mixed through various generations. So we don’t have a fair option to select. I am not pure native or pure white or I could even have a black ancestor. I am a little bit of everything and I don’t understand why this is such a big deal.

    1. Luis Arroyo3 years ago

      Yes you do, Arba.
      Im Puerto Rican American.
      I checked “Hispanic-Puerto Rican” on Q8.
      I checked “white” for biological race. (Spaniard descent-Valencia & Islas Canarias)

      Just mark “your ingredients”.

      Question 8,…..” ANOTHER HISPANIC “(CHECK)
      Then you write your Central American or S American country.

      Question 9 Race.

      (Check) White for Spanish or other white mixture.
      (Check) Black. (Includes all blacks,not just African Americans)
      (Check) Native American. Tribe? MAYA.

      You are not restricted to ONE box.

      People just want to be troublemakers and NOT FOLLOW RULES.
      Its also part of a “playing dumb” campaign by multicultural extremists to officialy force all Hispanics into a “Hispanic/Latino race box” of BROWN RACIAL VALUE in Census 2020.
      Multicultural extremists aren’t happy with 53% of Hispanics checking “white” (assimilating).
      They hope to stop the racial assimilation by permanently segregating Latinos with their own race box. Nevermind the fact that most Hispanics,regardless of mixture, resemble their tanned Mediterranean white Spaniards and Moorish Arabs from pre Columbus Spain.
      BTW, “multiculturalist are also lobbying for a “Islamic/Arabic” BROWN race box to transform white mediterranean Europeans like Turks,Albanians,Kosovans,Bosnians,as well as all mideast Arabs into overnight “minorities”.
      Arab/Islamic immigrants are high achievers,businessmen and their kids dominate many colleges. The are CAUCASIANS- Dark Mediterranean whites.
      But,like I said, Latinos and Arabs/East Europeans are olive to Tan to brown complexioned. …..Perfect for a “Brown ” category.

  21. Nat Turner3 years ago

    It’s an indictment on the American system that people feel compelled to change their racial identity just to get a fair deal.

  22. Liz Mata Sanderson3 years ago

    I am one of those people who may have changed their race answer (can’t remember). The reason is that I find it difficult to select one of the options. I am a typical Hispanic, a mix of races. My mom looks white (while I doubt that she would say she is white), my Dad looks like a South American Indian. So I don’t look white and I don’t look black, so those options are out. I am not Asian or Pacific Islander. So I usually pick other and fill in Mestizo, which means I am a mix of white and Indian.

    1. Hope3 years ago

      Yes! I did the same thing!

    2. Luis Arroyo3 years ago

      Q8 Hispanic?
      CHECK “Another Hispanic”. Write Peru,Colombia,or whatever the name happens to be.
      Q9 Race.
      Your mom looks white?
      CHECK, white
      Dad looks Indian?
      CHECK, Native American.
      Tribe? Write “South American indian”

      You answered your own race question.

      I dont understand whats so hard. It says “MARK MORE THAN ONE ANSWER”.

  23. Carlos Ovando3 years ago

    missing from the blogs is the fact that ethnic and racial data is used to distribute millions of dollars to the states. so states are interested on using census data to claim their shares of dollars from the feds.

    1. Carmen Mendoza2 years ago

      Now I understand Ann and Sandi’s posts. Thank you, this is a very valuable information.

  24. Sandi3 years ago

    The options changed from one to the other. Hispanics were left out of the last one forcing them to make other choices since the white man does not want to admit they are in the minority. One commented it was the same the census before for the American Indian. So you have to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges to get a true census.

    Oh, by the way, yes, I did work both census.

  25. slk3 years ago

    remember when there wasn’t a box to check for hispanic!!! eventually, when you fill out an application, and when you get to “race”, there will be a separate book with codes as to what you are!!!

  26. Steve Sailer3 years ago

    Thanks. Most interesting. It would be nice to have a table of the quantities of race/ethnicity changers in absolute and percentage terms when the paper is published.

    Best wishes,
    Steve Sailer