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Census studies new options for race, ethnicity

Current ‘Hispanic’ choice may hold down the count

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2012

With increasing numbers of Americans deciding they don't fit into any of the five government-defined categories of race offered in the 2010 national head count, officials at the Census Bureau say they are considering major changes to survey questions on race and ethnicity for the upcoming 2020 census.

Officials said Wednesday that they hoped the changes would increase response rates in minority populations, with particular attention to the growing U.S. Hispanic community. "Hispanic" on the 2010 census was defined as an ethnic category, not a race, leading some 18 million Hispanics — more than a third of the total U.S. Latino population — to choose "some other race" when asked their racial classification.

Currently the Census Bureau only recognizes white, black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and Asian as "races." Hispanics and other minority communities such as North Africans, Middle Easterners and Arabs are viewed as ethnic groups and have to identify with one of the recognized races.

The Census Bureau also is considering dropping use of the term "negro," leaving a choice of black or African-American, and is considering new classifications for Americans of Middle Eastern origin as well.

"As new immigrant groups came to this country decade after decade, how we measure ethnicity changed to reflect the changing composition of the country," Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said in a briefing for reporters Wednesday. "Since that change is never ending, and America gets more and more diverse, how we understand and tabulate the information has to be continually open to change."

"It's critical that race and ethnicity reflect how people identify themselves," he said.

In a separate section of the questionnaire given to some respondents in the 2010 census, Hispanics were given an option to choose "Hispanic" as their race or origin, and specific response rates rose substantially. The problem with the current system, according to the Census Bureau, is that the questionnaire is confusing or offensive and forces individuals to label themselves as a race that they do not identify with, causing many to skip the questions entirely.

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, Hispanic political groups have not been unanimous in pushing for the 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.

The Census Bureau also sent alternative questionnaires to 500,000 Americans with the race and ethnicity sections combined. The alternative questionnaires also allowed individuals to write in their preferred identification. The Census Bureau followed up with respondents through telephone interviews and targeted focus groups.

After analyzing the data, the Census Bureau discovered that when the race and ethnicity sections were combined only 1 percent of the sample population refused to answer. This was an improvement over the non-experimental 2010 census questionnaire where an estimated 3.5 percent to 5.7 percent refused to answer the race question and between 4.1 percent and 5.4 percent refused to answer the Hispanic origin question.

Despite these findings, the Census Bureau officials say they are still considering changes for the 2020 census form and continue to study the issue.

This article is based in part on wire reports.

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