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.
"This is a hot-button issue," said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York City and a community adviser to the census. "The burden will be on the Census Bureau to come up with evidence that wording changes will not undermine the Latino numbers."
Arab-Americans said they strongly support the Census Bureau's efforts. "The Census Bureau's current method for determining Arab ancestry yields a significant undercount 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.
Census director Robert Groves, who leaves his position Friday to become provost at Georgetown University, described the research findings as an important first step toward making changes in future censuses.
"As new immigrant groups came to this country decade after decade, how we measure ethnicity changed to reflect the changing composition of the country," Groves said. "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.
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.
While individual Hispanics have expressed dissatisfaction with census forms that don't count Latino as a race, Latino political groups have been reticent about pushing for a 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.
"Why would Latinos want to give up their own question on the census form that specifically asks if they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?" asks Falcon of the National Institute for Latino Policy. He notes that the current wording, which first asks people if they are of Latino origin and then prompts them to fill in their race, fostered a strong count in 2010 that yielded a new census milestone for Latinos of 50 million, or 1 in 6 Americans.
Nicholas Jones, chief of the racial statistics branch at the Census Bureau, said the government's more recent research found that Latino response rates were similar under both the current and the new proposed format. Across all race and ethnic groups, the nonresponse rates dropped notably to 1 percent under the proposed change, compared with nonresponse rates of roughly 4 to 5 percent with the traditional form.
Jones said the research identified ways to improve responses that will be used to discuss any survey changes with members of the Latino, black, Asian and other communities leading up to the 2020 census.
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 must be approved by Congress.
Other research findings:
_Removing the term "Negro" from the census form did not hurt the response rates of African-Americans. While some people in 2000 indicated that the term still had relevance to them, this number has steadily declined since then.
_Under the proposed changes, the number of people who reported multiple races increased significantly. The multiracial population is currently one of the nation's fastest growing demographic groups.
_When provided write-in lines, as much as 50 percent of people who checked their race as "white" wrote in an ethnicity such as Italian, Polish, Arab, Iranian or Middle Eastern. More than 76 percent of black respondents also wrote in an ethnicity, such as Jamaican, Haitian or Ethiopian.
_Based on focus groups, many people supported creating a separate racial category for those who identify as Middle Eastern or North African.
Many demographers predict a wider range of responses on census forms and blurring of racial categories over the next 50 years as the minority population grows and interracial marriage becomes more common. In the case of Hispanics, the nation's largest minority group, the label as an ethnicity to date has created particular confusion.
For instance, the Census Bureau describes Asian-Americans as the nation's fastest-growing race group from 2000 to 2010; their rate of growth is actually equal to that of Hispanics, an ethnic group. On the other hand, Hispanics are typically treated as a race for purposes of counting "interracial" marriages in the U.S.
Terry Minnis, director of census and voting programs at the Asian American Justice Center, said more tests are needed to ensure that Asian-Americans are fully counted under a new question format. Recent tests by the Census Bureau show some decreases in responses when there were fewer check boxes available for the various Asian-American groups, which include among others Asian Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Vietnamese.
"As the Census Bureau looks to develop new strategies that maximize measurement and reporting on race and ethnicity, it must ensure that nothing compromises the quality and detail of data on Asian Americans," Minnis said.
<blockquote><strong>43% </strong>is the percentage increase in the Hispanic population between April 1, 2000, and April 1, 2010, making Hispanics the fastest-growing minority group. Source for all statistics: <a href="http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-04.pdf" target="_hplink">United States Census</a> </blockquote>
<blockquote><strong> 50.5 million</strong> is the size of the Hispanic population of the United States as of April 1, 2010, making people of Hispanic origin the nation's largest ethnic or race minority. Hispanics constituted 16.3 percent of the nation's total population. In addition, there are 3.7 million residents of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. </blockquote>
<blockquote><strong>132.8 million</strong> is the projected size of the Hispanic population of the United States on July 1, 2050. According to this projection, Hispanics will constitute 30 percent of the nation's population by that date. </blockquote>
<blockquote><strong>2nd</strong> is the ranking of the size of the U.S. Hispanic population worldwide, as of 2010. Only Mexico (112 million) had a larger Hispanic population than the United States (50.5 million). </blockquote>
<blockquote><strong>14 million </strong>is the size of the population of the Hispanic-origin population that lived in California in 2010, up from 11 million in 2000. </blockquote>
<blockquote><strong>96%</strong> is the percentage of the population of Webb County, Texas, that was Hispanic as of 2010. This is the highest proportion of any county in the country.</blockquote>
<blockquote> <strong>82</strong> is the number of the nation's 3,143 counties that were majority-Hispanic.</blockquote>
<blockquote>10.4 million is the number of Hispanic family households in the United States in 2010.</blockquote>
<blockquote><strong>35 million</strong> is the number of U.S. residents 5 and older who spoke Spanish at home in 2009. Those who <em>hablan español</em> constituted 12 percent of U.S. residents. More than half of these Spanish speakers spoke English "very well." </blockquote>
<blockquote><strong>26.6%</strong> is the poverty rate among Hispanics in 2010, up from 25.3 percent in 2009, and 23.2 percent in 2008.</blockquote>
<blockquote> <strong>14%</strong> the percentage of the Hispanic population 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher in 2010.</blockquote>
<blockquote><strong>47%</strong> is the percent of the foreign-born population that was Hispanic in 2009.</blockquote>
<blockquote><strong> 9.7 million </strong>is the number of Hispanic citizens who reported voting in the 2008 presidential election, about 2 million more than voted in 2004. The percentage of Hispanic citizens voting went from 47 percent in 2004 to 50 percent in 2008. </blockquote>
<blockquote><strong>1.1 million</strong> is the number of Hispanics or Latinos 18 and older who are veterans of the U.S. armed forces.</blockquote>
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