Census Seeks Changes in How It Measures Race

Newsmax, August 8, 2012

To keep pace with rapidly changing notions of race, the Census Bureau wants to make broad changes to its surveys that would end use of the term “Negro,” count Hispanics as a mutually exclusive group and offer new ways to identify Middle Easterners.

The recommendations released Wednesday stem from new government research on the best ways to count the nation’s demographic groups. Still it could face stiff resistance from some race and ethnic groups who worry that any kind of wording change in the high-stakes government count could yield a lower tally for them.


The research is based on an experiment conducted during the 2010 census in which nearly 500,000 households were given forms with the race and ethnicity questions worded differently. The findings show that many people who filled out the traditional form did not feel they fit within the five government-defined categories of race: white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native; when questions were altered to address this concern, response rates and accuracy improved notably.

For instance, because Hispanic is currently defined as an ethnicity and not a race, some 18 million Latinos—or roughly 37 percent—used the “some other race” category on their census forms to establish a Hispanic racial identity. Under one proposed change to the census forms, a new question would simply ask a person’s race or origin, allowing them to check a single box next to choices including black, white, or Hispanic.

The other changes would drop use of “Negro,” leaving a choice of “black” or African-American, as well as add write-in categories that would allow Middle Easterners and Arabs to specifically identify themselves.


The issue isn’t just semantic. Some African-Americans in 2010, for instance, criticized a question asking if a person was “black, African American or Negro,” saying the government’s continued use of the term “Negro” was demeaning and offensive. The wording in census surveys can also be highly political: census data are used to distribute more than $400 billion in federal aid and draw political districts and thus can elicit concern if a change were to yield a lower response.

While individual Hispanics have expressed dissatisfaction with census forms that don’t count Latino as a race, Latino political groups have been reticent about pushing for a change. The main reason: past research has sometimes shown that treating Latinos as a mutually exclusive group on survey forms leads to a lower Hispanic count.


Nicholas Jones, chief of the racial statistics branch at the Census Bureau, said the government’s more recent research found that Latino response rates were similar under both the current and the new proposed format. {snip}


Other research findings:


—Based on focus groups, many people supported creating a separate racial category for those who identify as Middle Eastern or North African.

{snip} In the case of Hispanics, the nation’s largest minority group, the label as an ethnicity to date has created particular confusion.

For instance, while the Census Bureau has often described Asian-Americans as the nation’s fastest growing race group from 2000 to 2010; their rate of growth is actually equal to that of Hispanics, an ethnic group. On the other hand, Hispanics are typically treated as a race for purposes of counting “interracial” marriages in the U.S.



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