June 18, 2015

Census considers new approach to asking about race – by not using the term at all

2020 Census Question
Possible 2020 census race/Hispanic question for online respondents, who would click to the next screen to choose more detailed sub-categories such as “Cuban” or “Chinese.” Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

The Census Bureau is experimenting with new ways to ask Americans about their race or origin in the 2020 census – including not using the words “race” or “origin” at all. Instead, the questionnaire may tell people to check the “categories” that describe them.

Census officials say they want the questions they ask to be clear and easy, in order to encourage Americans to answer them, so the officials can better collect race and Hispanic data as required by law. But many people are confused by the current wording, or find it misleading or insufficient to describe their identity.

Census forms now have two questions about race and Hispanic origin. The first asks people whether they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, and states that “Hispanic origins are not races.” A second question asks, “What is this person’s race?” and includes a list of options with checkboxes and write-in spaces. The U.S. government defines Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race.

The problem with using the word “race” is that many Americans say they don’t know what it means, and how it is different from “origin.” The agency’s focus group research found that some people think the words mean the same thing, while others see race as meaning skin color, ancestry or culture, while origin is the nation or place where they or their parents were born.

2010 Census Question on Race and Ethnicity
2010 census form asks about race and Hispanic ethnicity separately. Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

The Census Bureau’s own definitions of race and Hispanic origin, which follow government-wide rules from the Office of Management and Budget, sometimes appear to overlap. A white person, for example, is defined as someone “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.” Hispanic is defined as a person of “Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”

The confusion reflects a larger debate about how to define race, which used to be seen as a fixed physical characteristic and now more commonly is viewed as a fluid product of many influences. “We recognize that race and ethnicity are not quantifiable values,” the Census Bureau said in a 2013 report. “Rather, identity is a complex mix of one’s family and social environment, historical or socio-political constructs, personal experience, context, and many other immeasurable factors.”

In test-census forms to be sent to 1.2 million respondent households later this fall, the bureau will test the impact of alternative question wording that drops all mention of “race” or “origin” and asks: “Which categories describe person 1?” People then can choose from the list of races and origins. The National Content Test also will test combining the Hispanic and race questions into one, in part because many Latinos believe that Hispanicity is a race and do not identify themselves as white, black or another standard racial group.

The content test also will experiment with adding a new Middle East and North Africa category. The test represents the bureau’s final major research effort before locking down its proposed 2020 questionnaire wording.

The bureau’s Federal Register notice published last month invited comments on the proposed test. The agency’s plans received some positive feedback at the March meeting of its National Advisory Committee of outside experts.

“I’m very happy that they are going to test a question which gets away from the language of race and ethnicity because frankly that is just a quagmire, that language,” said Ann Morning, an advisory committee member and New York University race scholar. “No two people seem to be able to agree on what those terms mean.”

In follow-up comments in an email, Morning said she believes “the beauty of simply referring to ‘categories’ is that it avoids that problem of people getting hung up on the terminology. So I would expect this term will allow people to answer the question more quickly, and to feel more free to check more than one box if they wish, and to lead to a lower non-response rate on that question.”

Census Bureau Race InteractiveIf adopted, the changes would add to the long list of revisions over time in the way the decennial census has asked about race, which has been included in every count since the first one in 1790. Until 1960, Americans did not choose their own race on census forms; enumerators did it for them. Racial categories have changed extensively through the decades, and question wording also has been revised.

The word “color,” not “race,” was used in census-taker instructions and some census forms in the 1800s. The word “race” appeared for the first time in 1880 enumerator instructions that talked about “color or race,” and the use of both terms continued on census forms or instructions through 1940. The term “color” was dropped from the 1950 census form, but returned on the 1970 census form.

The word “race” was not included in the 1960 census or 1980 census. Instead, the forms asked, “Is this person­ –” and listed the racial categories.

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. Anonymous1 year ago

    Counting people by any ethnic, cultural, or racial descriptor is a little scary at this point. Why not just ask, as some early 20th century censuses did, what language is spoken by each person? That might at least be helpful in planning ESL classes in schools and providing services to the elderly and others.

  2. MC2 years ago

    Why not:

    – “European” instead of “White”;
    _ “Latin American” instead of “Hispanic/Latino, or Spanish origin” (this is the most odd category of all):
    -“African (except North African)” instead of “Black or African American”

    Just basic geographic categories. I know Latin America is still kind of an ethnic label though.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      Because you can be white and not born in Europe so that might confuse people; because Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish origin can all be different things depending on how you define them so you can’t combine them to Latin American; and because you can be black without being African American (ex. Jamaican, Haitian). The categories you’re suggesting would probably confuse some people even more or make a lot of people feel as if they don’t belong in any of those categories. The suggested categories for the 2020 census are much more inclusive

  3. Dadimos2 years ago

    Am an Ethiopian proud to be called African.However, when I call myself African-American many blacks don’t consider me as black. So, who is me according to your definition?

  4. Magni Togorsak2 years ago

    How about adding MIXED as:

    1. A substantial number of Latin Americans HATE being called hispanic/latino, and most are MIXED.

    2. Large numbers of Americans are MIXED these days.

    3. America is getting more and more MIXED.

    4. Many whites are MIXED.

    5. Many blacks are MIXED.

    Eliminate Latino/Hispanic which makes virtually NO-SENSE and simply add MIXED… you’ll see how all these identification issues in your stupid little race obsessed census come to an end!

  5. Jess M2 years ago

    I don’t understand the confusion. This is so much better, being half Iranian half White, this is so much better than just putting White. And why do hispanic have so many problems? You can choose whatever “race” and hispanic. But most Latin Americans are mixed race, and are not pure european, african, indigenous. So they should just check all the boxes tbh lol. I only know a handful of pure white latinos, and know of only a few pure white latino celebs. I.e Gisele Bundchen, Pitt Bull.

  6. Gil Henriques2 years ago

    I would have no idea how to reply to this. Am I Hispanic/Latino if I am Portuguese, or is that reserved to Spaniards and Latin Americans? And am I white? I always considered myself so, but I’m certainly not as pale as a German. And I’m not even a complicated case, as I don’t have several different ancestries nor am I form some minority ethnic group that is not covered in the list…

    1. MC2 years ago

      I think you are complicating this stuff. You are just like the people who are of Italian, French or Spanish (from Spain, obviously) origin: European. White.
      Hispanic/Latino is a label to people whose origin is from Spanish-speaking Latin America.
      I’m from Portugal.

      1. Anonymous1 year ago

        Yes, but Spanish are like the most hispanic people you can meet. Also, it says Hispani, Latino or Spanish. So we are not white now? Do we have to say Spanish and white? Is it that a different white? This census is the most stupid thing Americans have ever come up with, and that’s saying much. And I don’t care if people here feel offended, it is.

  7. juicy2 years ago

    Why can they put race for latinos nat all latinos are same race Argentina is white race cuba is white race Uruguay is white race why is so hard to make race for latin America Mexico is mestizo

    1. Kristell M2 years ago

      Latin America isn’t all white…. the majority of the population is mestizo in Latin America too. There’s also a huge black population and –omg– even Asian and and Eurasian minorities. Latin America is probably one of the most mixed places on Earth. It is not all white by any means whatsoever. That’s like saying the US is all white or Africa is all black.

  8. Stig Hemmer2 years ago

    Clearly the problem is the law requiring the collection of this nonsense data.

  9. John R Sanchez2 years ago

    Hispanic- (entomology) refers to the Iberean Peninsula (Spain and Portugal)
    Latino- refers to the Latins who founded Rome.
    Spanish Origin- refers to Spain.

    None of the options for anyone who’s ancestry belongs native to lands south of Texas, show they are a people who”s a native to the lands pre-Columbus. Still no option for Chicano.

    1. Kathryn Williams2 years ago

      There is only one race, and that is Human; North Africa is not white, it’s Afrikan. Many Hispanics have Afrikan roots in them but do not want to acknowledge it because it is better to be white than black in their eyes, they call themselves Indios. Many Asians such as Phillipino’s have Afrikan blood in them. When it is cool to be of Afrikan descent or when Afrikan American’s receive reparations, you will see more people claiming their Afrikan roots. Many Blacks are also Native American because at one time in history, it was illegal to be Native American, one could only choose white or colored, so Native Americans had to choose colored because they weren’t white. When Native Americans received land grants / reservations and special priviledges they excluded those of Afrikan decents because being from Afrika was shameful. Most Afrikan Americans have white blood in them too.

  10. m2 years ago

    It’s about time! We’re all just people no matter what creed, nationality, race, or religion.

  11. Puzzled Researcher2 years ago

    The headline says that the term “race” is “not used at all”. But the image shown clearly uses “race” in the last category.


  12. Kathy2 years ago

    It’s still very confusing, and does not address mixed ‘origins’, or races. How about human or non human? That would simplify the issue entirely.

  13. Skip Voorhees2 years ago

    I view the references to “race” and “origin” as non-issues; they are a reality………..SV

  14. John Ott2 years ago

    I was a door to door census taker for the 2010 census, in Texas, in a town neighboring a military installation. I found that about 40% of the individuals interviewed did not know their or their children’s race definition. The racial mix in such communities is such that even asking such a question is questionable. What is the race of a child who’s mother is the child of a white GI who married a Japanese woman and whose father is the son of an Afro-American GI who married a German woman? The answer of course is “other”. Why must we have laws requiring such data collection? I first began working at analyzing, collecting, using, processing or reporting data in January 1955 and am still doing so 60 years later while volunteering at a local food pantry. Almost all such data is either manipulated to someone’s advantage or simply just ignored. In the past it often simply just filled millions of dollars worth of otherwise unneeded file cabinets.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      Proportionate, all the good things in life need to be divided equally amongst the races.

  15. jack2 years ago

    Just going with the idea of not asking about race…WHAT P R (Pew Research) is going full tilt PC!!

  16. Chris2 years ago

    There is only one race, the human race. It is called ethnicity, so nobody should be asked what race they are, for it is obvious. This is one step closer to facing the reality of our existence, rather than trying to create our own definitions which have no concern for human nature.