Race in America is changing; Census Bureau must catch up

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The notion of race in America is changing and the U.S. Census Bureau might be left further behind if it cannot make the changes it needs to — and fast — in coming days.

As the rise in popularity of at-home genetic DNA tests illustrates, Americans no longer view race and ethnicity in simple “black” and “white” terms. Increasingly, they are interested in understanding and identifying with every facet of their racial and ethnic backgrounds.

{mosads}Latinos are no different, especially given the significant diversity that exists within the nation’s second largest population. From a fifth-generation Salvadoran-American in California, to a second-generation Puerto Rican and Dominican-American in New York, to a first-generation Mexican-American immigrant in Georgia, racial identity for Latinos does not fit into a neat little box. Like all Americans, Latinos reside in all 50 states and represent a multitude of colors and ethnic origins.


Given our changing demographics, and given that the notion of racial identity continues to evolve, it is vital that the Census Bureau’s approach used to collect data keeps up with where we are as a nation. This means asking questions about race and ethnicity in a way that allows Latinos and all Americans to see themselves in the questions and answers.

In-depth research suggests that if the Census Bureau were to pose the same questions about race and ethnicity in 2020 that it did in 2010, the nation’s second largest racial group would be those who marked the “some other race” category. 

This is because the current two-question approach, which was used in 2010, does not allow Latinos to properly indicate their racial and ethnic identity. With the two-question approach, individuals first are asked if they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, and then are asked to select a race in a separate question. 

Through focus groups and interviews conducted by the Census Bureau, Latinos revealed that they were not satisfied with answers they provided and either chose to ignore the separate race question since Latino was not an option or to select “some other race.”

More than 6 percent of all decennial census respondents — 19.1 million people — identified themselves as “some other race” in 2010, with 97 percent of those 19.1 million individuals also identifying themselves as being Latino.

The clock is ticking. The Census Bureau must submit final questions for the 2020 census to Congress by March 31, 2018. Fortunately, the Office of Management and Budget already is considering a much-needed solution to this issue. 

In a new single, combined question approach recommended by Census Bureau demographic experts and 14 U.S. senators, Latinos and all Americans would be able to check off as many race and ethnicity boxes as they feel necessary to fully identify their backgrounds. This means individuals no longer would be forced to select only “Black,” “White,” “Puerto Rican” or “Cuban” in the two-question approach; they could identify as “Latino” and any other racial categories or ethnic origins that they feel accurately represent their full identity in a single question.

Census 2020 already is in serious jeopardy. Funding has not kept pace with the growing needs of the Census Bureau in the lead-up to 2020, and the agency still lacks a director. In addition, fear and mistrust of the government continue to grow within Latino and immigrant communities as the nation’s get-out-the-count operation draws near.

Although these problems are more difficult to tackle in the current political climate, making sure we get the racial and ethnicity question right is something that we can easily fix. The time is now for the Office of Management and Budget to revise the race and ethnic standards for federal statistics and administrative reporting to allow implementation of a single, combined question on race and ethnicity for the 2020 Census.

The stakes are high. Our nation and the American people are moving forward, and it is time that we act to make sure the census does not fall behind and get left in the rearview mirror. 

Arturo Vargas is executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund and a member of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations. Follow him on Twitter at ArturoNALEO.

Tags 2020 Census Demographics of the United States Latino Race Race and ethnicity in the United States

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