06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can the Census Handle a Changing America?

The census is more than a constitutional mandate to snapshot the population and ensure proper allocation of federal funds. It is also a telling--and at times controversial--window into how the United States deals with the most deeply personal of all issues: identity. How people within the American "melting pot" identify themselves is often an insightful narrative on society's relationship with race, ethnicity, assimilation, and culture.

The United States will become a nation of minorities by 2050. The Census Bureau predicts that the nation's Hispanic and Asian populations will triple, and the black population is projected to rise from 35.8 million to 61.4 million. As our country undergoes this striking change, identity is of particular importance to communities of color and nonwhite ethnic groups who have traditionally participated in the census at lower rates than whites.

The opportunity to define oneself can be an important acknowledgment of one's homeland and history for many racial and ethnic minorities. It is a chance to affirm unique cultures and experiences while still recognizing one's American identity.

The significance isn't entirely symbolic, of course. The census data also helps empower communities by making sure they are included when new congressional and legislative districts are drawn, and the Department of Justice uses the information to enforce and monitor compliance with civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. As the old adage goes, "there is strength in numbers." The more accurate the count of minority communities is, the easier it is for them to demonstrate and attain political power and influence commensurate with their size.

Many thorny issues are sure to arise when it comes to a choice like identity that is so intimate and consequential, and it is in minority communities that the challenges related to the census' racial and ethnic self-identification have been most apparent. The 2010 census form has already steered controversy among several ethnic groups.

When it became public that the form uses the phrase "Black, African American, or Negro," including the outdated term "Negro" as an option for African Americans, some sectors of the community were offended because of the term's historical and often painful association with Jim Crow laws and segregation of the 1960s when the term was regularly used and accepted.

Hispanics have also been puzzled at the choices given on race. The white, black, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Asian subcategories do not reflect the reality that many Hispanics consider their heritage in racial terms, as well. When Hispanics were asked to register white or black as their race on the 2000 census form, nearly 40 percent of Hispanics wrote in "Other." They represented 95 percent of all the 15.3 million people in the United States who did so.

Arab Americans are another group raising concerns--and their history complicates matters more than most. Syrian immigrants long ago successfully petitioned the U.S. government to be categorized as white to avoid discrimination and exclusionary policies meant to stigmatize blacks. The government has applied the label to Arab Americans ever since. Now, as race and ethnicity has become a source of pride for many, it is quite disaffirming--and economically disadvantageous--to not have their true ethnic identity presented as an option. Resources and services cannot be appropriately allocated to Arab-American communities if the counts are not accurate.

The Census Bureau has invested $250 million in outreach to minority communities and other hard to reach populations for this census, partnering with churches, community centers, mom and pop stores, and advocacy groups. Some of this outreach has also been rife with challenges related to diversity. The Asian American Legal Defense fund, for example, has registered complaints with the Census Bureau about language translation and assistance problems in 12 states. But the bureau believes this concerted effort will largely result in increased participation and an accurate count of minority populations.

Yet this kind of targeting must be paired with listening and responding to these communities' concerns about the form's race and ethnicity questions to ensure the census adjusts to the country's growing diversity for decades to come.

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves signaled earlier this week that he understands this need when he apologized for the use of the word "Negro" on the form and predicted that both it and other words would need to change for the 2020 census.

Only time will tell how the American concept of racial and ethnic identity will shift in the coming years. The census holds a tremendous opportunity as communities of color are counted and become more confident in the role of the census in economically and politically carving out their piece of the American pie. If done right, it will not only track changes in population; it will also capture something even more important to the great American story--how we view ourselves.