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Why the U.S. Census Bureau might drop the term 'race' in 2020

The U.S. is becoming more diverse and its census bureau is trying to figure out how best to capture the changing face of the country. It's considering changes to how it asks Americans about their backgrounds and that could mean big changes to the traditional question of race.

The agency is considering new ways of asking Americans what race and ethnicity they are

Latino leaders and immigration reform supporters gather for a rally at Farrand Field on the campus of the University of Colorado in October. The U.S. Census Bureau is currently testing new ways of asking Americans about their racial and ethnic background for the 2020 census because some people find the current method confusing. (Evan Semon/Reuters)

As the United States becomes more diverse, its census bureau is trying to figure out how best to capture the changing face of the country. That could mean that the next time Americans fill out the census, they won't check a box for their race.

This fall, the U.S. Census Bureau is testing different ways of asking Americans about their race, ethnicity and origin in advance of the next census in 2020. It could make some major changes as a result of what they find.

Nicholas Jones, director of race and ethnicity research at the census bureau, explained in an interview that a growing number of population groups think the current race and ethnic classification system is confusing or irrelevant to how they self-identify. The terms race, ethnicity, and origin mean different things to different people the bureau's research shows.

"We understand that the American population is becoming more diverse along a number of dimensions and that's why we are doing this important research," he said.

The 2010 census asked respondents whether they were of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin. The next question asked respondents to choose from five broad race categories: white, black/African American/Negro, American Indian or Alaska native, Asian, native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. The census bureau does not consider Hispanic a race but rather an ethnicity.
Question 9 on the U.S. census in 2010 asks people what their race is and has five main categories from which to choose. (Associated Press)

"Some other race" was also a box on the last census and respondents could write in their response. About 19 million Americans used that option, the majority of them Hispanic.

The census bureau found that some population groups — Hispanics and people of mixed race, for example — were checking the "some other race" box because they didn't identify with the five traditional race categories.

Some respondents didn't answer the race question at all, making the non-response rate higher than the bureau would like to see.  

In an effort to get better response rates, and the most accurate data possible on the makeup of the American population, the bureau is testing different wording in questionnaires put out this fall to about 1.2 million households.

'Negro' dropped from test forms

Some forms ask people what "race and origin" they are and others ask what "race and ethnicity" they are, followed by the five categories. Research to date has found that people are less confused when those terms are combined rather than asked separately.

Some test forms drop the "race" term completely and leave it wide open by asking: "Which categories describe you?"

Among the other variations on the test forms: they dropped the term "Negro," they added a write-in space for the white and black race categories to get more detailed information such as Irish, German, Nigerian or Jamaican, and a new option "Middle Eastern or North African" was added on some forms.

Currently, those who identify as Middle Eastern or North African fall into the "white" racial category. The separate question being tested lists Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian as examples for people who fall into that category.

In general, the testing questions allow for much greater flexibility. There are more write-in spaces within the five race categories and more checkboxes for each category so they can be broken down in more detail, such as the Middle Eastern and North African option.

The Asian category, for example, is followed by boxes where the respondent could check Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, or Japanese.

Decisions to be made in 2016

Respondents don't even have to check one of the five race categories if they don't want to. Instead, they can simply use the write-in space provided or the detailed boxes to check.

Jones said it's important to have as detailed and accurate data as possible about racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. because of how the data is used to administer government programs and craft legislation.

The U.S. Census Bureau is considering changes to the way it asks Americans about their race and ethnicity. It is currently testing new methods in advance of the next census in 2020. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

"The Census Bureau really prides itself on collecting and being the pre-eminent collector of accurate and reliable data," he said of the research project.

The race question has been asked on the U.S. census since 1790 and there have been tweaks to it with nearly every round of questioning, said Jones.

Kenneth Prewitt, the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau who was in charge of the 2000 census, is applauding the efforts to change the race and ethnicity questions.

"It's an extremely important innovation and effort that they are making on this. I think the system that we have is old and tired, it's been around for over 200 years," he said in an interview.

He'd like to see less of a focus on the five traditional race categories and more emphasis on nationalities and countries of origin.

"These categories are leftover from a racist past and the vocabulary of racism is still with us," said Prewitt, currently a professor at Columbia University.

"I think the United States should be thought of as a nation of nationalities rather than a nation of races."

The Census Bureau will finish its testing, evaluate the results, and do public consultations before making its final decisions next year about what will be asked — and what won't be — in 2020.

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