Census wants to change how it measures race
An experiment showed that many people who filled out the traditional census form did not feel they fit within the five government-defined categories of race: white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native.
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — To keep pace with rapidly changing notions of race, the Census Bureau wants to make broad changes to its surveys that would treat "Hispanic" as a distinct category regardless of race, end use of the term "Negro" 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 racial 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 burden will be on the Census Bureau to come up with evidence that wording changes will not undermine the Latino numbers," said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York City and a community adviser to the census.
Arab Americans said they strongly support the Census Bureau's efforts.
"The Census Bureau's current method for determining Arab ancestry yields a significant under-count of the actual size of the community, and we're optimistic that the new form should be significantly better at capturing ancestry data," the Arab American Institute said in a statement.
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.
"We believe the proposed changes are consistent with the way most people do choose to self-identify and will enable census to more accurately capture the growing racial/ethnic diversity in the U.S.," the National Urban League said Wednesday in a statement.
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.
The government definitions of race groups are set by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Currently, Hispanics are an ethnic group, which means although they share a common language, culture and heritage, they do not share a common race. They can be black, white, Asian, American Indian or descended from original peoples of a place colonized by Spain.
Changes to questions on census forms also are subject to approval by Congress.