The US probably isn’t as white as it claims

The more ways to identify, the better.
The more ways to identify, the better.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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As the US grows more diverse, the way its demographers categorize race is increasingly in need of a revamp.

The US Census has been experimenting with modifying its questions, to make sure the results of its decennial survey reflect the country’s population when it comes out in 2020. Potential changes to the census questionnaire include giving Hispanics different ways to identify themselves, and adding a new category for Arab Americans. (For the moment, those of Arab descent are categorized as “white”).

Census director John Thompson said on Nov. 18 that his agency is still mulling whether to implement them. But its research on the issue already provides clues about the real racial make-up of the United States: It’s likely less white and more mixed than officially reported.

The biggest shortfall in how the Census counts people has to do with Hispanics, one of the fastest growing groups.  Many identify solely as Hispanic, and don’t see themselves belonging to any of the racial categories presented by the Census. So they struggle to answer the current version of the census survey, which asks respondents to identify both an ”origin,” and a race.

This is problematic because census findings are used to determine a wide array of policies, Julie Dowling, a professor of Latino studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tells Quartz.  If the numbers don’t represent the reality on the ground due to a dearth of options, she says, “We can’t do anything with that data.”

One government study (pdf, page 4) revealed that when told to identify race in addition to origin in two separate questions, around 40% to 50% of those who identified as Hispanic chose “white” as their race. But when given the option to pick race, origin or both in a single combined question, many identified solely as Hispanic, with the share of those who considered themselves white dropping dramatically to a range of 9% to 16%.

Some Hispanics later told the Census in focus groups that they had less trouble identifying themselves when asked the combined question than separate ones.

In another Census research project, which involved sending out an array of questionnaires asking about race in different ways, combining race and origin in a single question rejiggered respondents’ racial make-up in significant ways. Notably, the share of “white” and “some other race” declined considerably, and the proportion of those who consider themselves of mixed race went up.