- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2014

Civil rights groups warned Monday that a possible change to how the Census Bureau asks about race and ethnicity in 2020 would end up clouding the picture more than it helps, and could skew the way the government distributes aid or enforces discrimination laws.

In the last national census taken in 2010, people were asked to identify their race and to report separately if they were Hispanic. But Census officials are considering lumping those two queries into a single question that deals with both race and ethnic origin.

Advocacy groups said they feared important information about individuals could be lost with the change.

The current two-question system, for example, allows respondents who identify as “Asian” to check off a box signifying whether they are Chinese, Japanese, Filipino or a variety of other origins. But the new proposal would have them check Asian, then offer a spot for them to write in a specific origin if they want — but they wouldn’t be prompted by check boxes.

If people don’t report their origin, it’s not as useful when it comes to programs such as language assistance for elections, said Terry Ao Minnis, director of census and voting programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“The Census Bureau must ensure we do not move backwards,” she told reporters Monday. “For our community, this means a maximum number of check boxes should be included for ‘Asian Americans’ and the ‘Native Hawaiian\Pacific Islander’ subgroup.”

The 2010 census gave respondents 14 options for ethnicity, as well as a place to write in another ethnic group with which they identified. Under the two-question set-up, however, respondents only have seven options, according to the Census website. Each of the options must be written in to indicate the place of origin.

The Census Bureau said a lot of people currently check “Other” when asked their race in a two-question system, but offering a single question pushes them to answer — suggesting they found a label that suited their identity, Census officials say.

“Overall, when a Hispanic category is provided as a response option within the combined approach, some other race becomes one of the smallest response groups, demonstrating that our combined question is more in line with how Hispanic respondents view themselves,” Nicholas Jones, director of race and ethnic research and outreach at the Census Bureau, told reporters last month.

On Monday, the Bureau said it is still studying the issue.

The decennial census is politically charged, with interest groups arguing over how the count is done and how people are categorized. Some conservatives balk at what they say are intrusive questions, while liberal groups argue the questions need to be targeted to better find out communities’ needs for government help.

Arab-Americans want their own identification option on the next census, saying they currently are classified as white, leaving no accurate way to count their community.

Samer Khalaf, national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that’s a problem when they need to ask for funding for problems specific to Arab-American communities in the post-9/11 world.

Mr. Khalaf said it’s especially difficult for people from countries like Sudan or the Nubian region of Egypt who are dark-skinned but come from Middle Eastern countries technically classified as white by the census.

“We cannot be defined by one single color, we have a rainbow of people,” he said. “They’re confused about what they should indicate. Do they say they are black, or do they say they are white because they technically come from a country designated as ‘white’ by the census?”

Latinos from Caribbean countries who also identify with an African heritage face a similar problem of not knowing which box to check, said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

Most people who end up checking the “Other” box for ethnicity are of Hispanic heritage, and Ms. Gold said limiting options for race and ethnicity questions could end up providing less information about these respondents.

“Some are concerned that by eliminating that other category, we are going to lose some kind of information about Latinos who don’t necessarily see themselves in the standard racial categories,” she said.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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