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Census Bureau Ponders the Changing Definitions of Race in America

The Census Bureau may revise questions about race and ethnicity on the 2020 survey to improve the accuracy of data on minority groups. Recent data shows a difference between how the government identifies such groups and how they identify themselves.
January 4, 2013, 8am PST | Jessica Hsu
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"For many years, the accuracy of census data on some minorities has been questioned because many respondents don't report being a member of one of the five official government racial categories: white, black or African-American, Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native and Pacific Islander," says Corey Dade. If respondents don't select a category, the Census Bureau assigns them a race based on their neighborhood demographics.

The accuracy of census data is important because the information is used in political decision-making such as enforcing civil rights laws, redrawing state legislative and local school districts, and reapportioning congressional seats. "The strong Latino growth found in the 2010 census guaranteed additional seats in Congress for eight states," says Dade, as an example. Revisions to census questions could improve data reliability, and officials are considering eliminating the Hispanic origin question, asking Asians to list their country of descent, and combining questions for multiracial people.

Latino leaders have voiced their opinion that eliminating the Hispanic origin question could create confusion, but the 2010 survey showed that the question already confused Latinos because many think of "Hispanic" as a race and not an ethnicity. "Broadly, the nation's demographic shifts underscore the fact that many people, particularly Latinos and immigrants, don't identify with the American concept of race," says Dade. He continues, "Even the terms 'Latino' and 'Hispanic' are met by many with ambivalence."

A 2011 survey by the Pew Hispanic Research Center found that only 24 percent of adults use those terms to describe their identity and prefer to identify themselves by their family's country of origin. The Bureau's research for the next census "is expanding our understanding of how people identify their race and Hispanic origin. It can change over time," said Karen Humes, assistant division chief for Special Population Statistics.

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Published on Thursday, December 27, 2012 in National Public Radio
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