Preparing for the 2020 Census: Measuring Race and Ethnicity in America

Print This Post Print This Post

By John H. ThompsonDSC_0031

The year 2020 may seem a long way away, but we’re already in full swing preparing for the next decennial census. Today, we held an operations update to announce some of the steps we’re taking to ensure that the 2020 Census provides the highest-quality statistics about our nation’s increasingly changing population, such as how we measure race and ethnicity.

One challenge we face is how Americans view race and ethnicity differently than in decades past. In our diverse society, a growing number of people find the current race and ethnic categories confusing, or they wish to see their own specific group reflected on the census. The Census Bureau remains committed to researching approaches that more accurately measure and reflect how people self-identify their race and ethnic origin.

During the 2010 Census, most households received a census form that asked about race and Hispanic origin through two separate questions. However, we also conducted a major research project – called the “2010 Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment” (AQE) – to better understand how and why people identify themselves in different ways and in different contexts.

The AQE tested different questionnaire strategies with four goals in mind:AQE_Graphic1

  1. Increase reporting in the race and ethnic categories as defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget,
  2. Increase responses to the race and ethnicity question(s),
  3. Increase the accuracy and reliability of the results, and
  4. Elicit detailed responses for all racial and ethnic communities (e.g., Chinese, Mexican, Jamaican, Lebanese, etc.).

The results of the AQE supported all of these objectives. One of our experimental approaches asked about race and Hispanic origin in one combined question. In the combined question, each major racial and ethnic group had a checkbox with examples and a write-in line where respondents could provide detailed responses. Many individuals across communities liked the combined question approach. They felt it presented equity to the different categories.

Some of our findings from this experiment include:AQE_Graphic2

  • Combining race and ethnicity into one question did not reduce the proportion of Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, American Indians and Alaska Natives, or Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders.
  • The combined question yielded higher response rates.
  • The combined question increased reporting of detailed responses for most groups, but decreased reporting for others.
  • The combined question more accurately reflects self-identity.


You can check out the AQE website for more information on our findings, and to see what the AQE questions look like.

The AQE’s results led to some promising strategies to address the challenges and complexities of race and Hispanic origin measurement and reporting. We have a lot to consider as we make decisions for the 2020 Census. In order to make the best decisions possible, we are embarking on mid-decade research with both the combined question and separate questions approach. We’re also engaging in an ongoing discussion about race and ethnicity among statistical agencies and various population stakeholder groups. Together, these discussions and research will enable us to provide the most accurate, reliable, and relevant data possible about our changing and diversifying nation.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll blog about additional topics that we addressed at that event.

This entry was posted in 2020 Census and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Preparing for the 2020 Census: Measuring Race and Ethnicity in America

  1. Patty Becker says:

    What is the event to which you refer in the last line?

  2. Andrew says:

    This is my first time visiting your website, but I found a lot of interesting information. From the volume of comments on your posts, I guess I am not the only one! Keep the good work up.

  3. Gentsu Gen says:

    Asking about race is racist, please stop.

    • Adam says:

      It’s not racist. Racism is only in our heads and only when we decide to act is it…well..bad. As a white-human I always am thinking, “oh shit…did I look at that guy fairly? Crap, did I walk with enough distance away from [insert minority] for him/her to feel “comfortable.”

      It’s a two-way street as well

  4. Shauna says:

    I found out on the night of January 30, 2015 that the Census Bureau is considering adding in Middle East/North Africa as a race category, and that there is a comment deadline of February 1, 2015. I have no idea how or where to submit comments. Was this noticed in the Federal Register? I’m putting my comments here for lack of knowing where to comment.

    I am of mixed ethnicity. My great-grandparents were immigrants from Lebanon (then part of Syria) and according to an estimate of my ethnicity that I had done for curiosity’s sake, the estimated percent of my genetic makeup that is “Lebanese” is 29. I am also partly of Celtic descent, Scandinavian, French, English, and had trace amounts of DNA that may mean I’m also part Arab, as well as other groups.

    So, I just wanted to point out that, first off, the Lebanese are not actually Arabs. According to not only the historical accounts, but this genetic analysis that I had done, they are more closely aligned with the Italians and Greeks, which is presumably due to their being the descendants of the Phoenicians. That means that in all actuality, if the Census Bureau sticks the Lebanese in with the Arabs in a new race designation, the Greeks, Italians, Maltese, and Cypriots would need to be included, otherwise the designation would not be based on anything more than geography, which is not appropriate.

    Secondly, will there be a way on the form for the 2020 census for someone such as myself to mark him/herself as part white, part Middle East/North Africa? I would be supposedly about 65% “white” according to this new proposal, and 33-34% Middle East/North Africa, plus a trace of other “non-white” ethnicity. Never mind the fact that I have a Celtic first name, Celtic last name, a French middle name, speak all of about six words of Arabic, and am little enough of Middle Eastern descent that I don’t look very “Arabic.” My family is not Muslim, they were all Maronite Catholic. Therefore, really, no one knows I’m anything other than of European descent unless I tell them, and because of that, I have been lucky enough not be subjected to prejudice against people of Middle Eastern origin.

    The bottom line for me is I don’t like this idea, and I don’t like the fact that although I’m a Federal employee who checks the contents of the Federal Register every work day, I never knew about this until it made the newspapers. I don’t need more stress and confusion, worrying about who’s going to start discriminating against me based on my belonging to this “race.” I get that many Arab-Americans are frustrated by the fact that the United States classifies us as white, while those of us who are known to be of Middle Eastern descent unfortunately face prejudice from people who treat us as a minority to feared and/or hated. However, I wish people would just get over this pigeonholing, and get over themselves. Not every Caucasian has blonde hair and blue eyes, or red hair and green eyes, some have brown eyes and brown or black hair, and who cares? I certainly don’t. I don’t need to be called “non-white” to be “heard” or “understood” or whatever other supposed concern is motivating this.

    By the way, the United States, back when there was an influx of Syrian/Lebanese immigrants in the early 1900s, would not let “Mongoloids” immigrate. Whoever the morons were that were in charge of classifying races put the Lebanese and other Middle Easterners into the “Mongoloid” group with the Asians, and people such as my great-grandparents had to bend over backwards to prove that they were white, in order to get past the racial prejudice that otherwise would have kept them from immigrating. They were able to get into the country and were nothing but proud to be U.S. citizens. It doesn’t seem at all reasonable to do a nearly 180-degree-turn just because now it’s not convenient to be “white.”

    What were the folks behind this idea thinking?

    • Luis Arroyo says:

      You are “Mediterranean white”. The olive, tan, light brown darker variant of the Caucasian branch of humanity. In the US if your last name is Hassan, you’re “caucasian”, If you’re from Spain in Europe with “Gonzales” as a surname, you’re “Hispanic”. Both groups are mediterranean white with admixture in the Hispanic world.

      It seems the US Census has been hijacked by multicultural extremists hell bent on preventing Hispanics from Identifying as white! A barometer of Latino assimilation is the fact that for the first time in decades over 50% of Hispanics Identified as white. This combination of Race and Ethnicity is your typical “Latinos are all the same” mentality and an attempt to artificially trigger an early “nonwhite minority majority”. Sorry for digressing. Again, all your admixtures Celtic, Lebaneses and so on lie within the Caucasian branch.

  5. Erica says:

    What if you are bi-racial. When does the census plan on honoring something as common as multiracial groups? If the census needs to know specifics regarding multiracial background why not ask this question as well.

    • Luis Arroyo says:

      The 2010 Census was the most acccurate to date.
      Question 8 asked if you are Hispanic./ List of countries.

      Question 9 asked about Race. (Pick all that apply)
      If you are Black and white, choose both.
      If you are Hispanic on question 8, and Mestizo Mexican, you choose white and Native American with Maya or Aztec as tribes.

      Its not difficult at all. Many Hispanic countries don’t use racial categories so many hispanic immigrants don’t know their ancestry, just their “nationality”. ( I’m not Black! I’m “Dominican”- says the clearly African looking guy.) Others are complete A holes refusing to comply with the questions.

      The New Combined Race/Ethnicity is RACIST and STEREOTYPICAL.
      It assumes all Hispanics/ Latinos are the same.
      Argentines- 22 million from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland,Germany. A nation of spanish Speaking blue eyed blondes are NOT WHITE? They NOW have to choose the HISPANIC race box because Argentina is a H8ispanic Country?
      What about Uruguay? The Whitest most German descended spanish speaking country in South America? NOPE. NON WHITE. You may not choose “white” you are from Uruguay. Pick “Hispanic w/ the nonwhite racial value”. Notice the elimination of the following disclaimer in the 2020 Census; “Hispanics/Latinos may be of any race”. We are now forced into a new “nonwhite”/nonblack/nonasian/nonnative American “race”

      Homo Sapiens and now “Homo Hispanis”

  6. Luis Arroyo says:

    The combined Race and ethnicity for Hispanics is RACIST and Stereotypical.

    We are NOT the same. Are Americans the same? NO! Latin America is a continent of Native Americans and European and African Immigrants.

    Is Zoe Saldana a Colombian od African descent or “Hispanic/Latino”?
    Is Cameron Diaz a Half American/half Cuban American white blonde or is she a “non white “Hispanic/Latino”?
    Is Charlie Sheen now NONWHITE?
    Is Martin Sheen now NONWHITE?
    Was Sammy Davis JR NON BLACK because he was 1/2 Cuban?
    Is Rita Hayworth now non white? (MargaRITA Cansino) Mexican American of great great Italian immigrants to Mexico.
    Is POPE FRANCIS of pure Italian descent NON white Hispanic because he’s from Argentina? The media stup1dly called him “the first non western nonwhite pope” Argentina IS WESTERN,WHITE!
    Is Charlie Rangel (D-NY) Black or Hispanic?(He’s Puerto Rican)
    Is Alexis Bledel with her big blue eyes white or Hispanic Argentine?
    Is Victoria Justice, Mike Lowell (MLB),Vanna White(wheel of Fortune) whites or Puerto rican Hispanic “race”?

    This clearly is an attempt by liberal census people to encourage Hispanics to become a permanent separate group . Or…the Census folks think we “all look alike”!!!

  7. Z.L. Ramirez says:

    The proposed new format makes a lot of sense. It allows many Latinos to express their origin or ethnicity without regard to their racial phenotype, which usually does not coincide with the U.S. conception of race. I also see that there is an extra column that reads “some other race or origin” and not just “some other race.” Provided the information is tabulated accurately, this may allow Jewish Americans, Iranian Americans, Kurdish and Turkish people as well as Arabs, Roma and Sami to express their origins more openly.
    Having said that, I recognize inherent problems in this approach, as well as the current approach. Ideally, it would be preferable if respondents were asked a series of questions, for example: “Are you Asian or Asian American?” and “Are you Native American?” and “Are you a Pacific Islander?” And even “Are you Arab?” or “Are you Jewish?” It would force respondents to consider a particular ethnicity and either accept it or reject it. The result would be a more thorough study of the ethnic composition of the United States. However, that format may be more cumbersome and take more time to complete.
    “Lebanese” and “Egyptian” are given as examples of white people, but many Arabs do not see themselves as white. This may be resolved by adding a separate question or an additional column asking about Arab descent or origin. Black Hispanics may be torn between checking the box that reads “Black or African American” or the one that reads “Latino or Hispanic”. The inclusion of “Haitian” as an alternative origin example within the “Black or African American” column may cause confusion and diminish the number of people checking the box for “Latino”, since Haitians ARE considered Latinos.
    I also believe that the definition of Asian American must be more expansive. The current definition ignores people from Central Asia. At the very least Kazakh people and Kyrgyz people should be considered Asian as their phenotypes would lead the average person to designate them as such.

  8. Paolino says:

    I don’t know what to do about Hispanic and non-Hispanic. However, I do know what to do about multi-racial. Here is a solution to that:

    Which categories describe Person 1?

    Fill in the symbol O for each category that is part of the background of person 1. Note: you may fill in as many as necessary to describe the true background of person 1, including Unknown.

    To the left of the symbol O, you will see a place to put a fraction, which looks like this: ___ /___

    ___ /___ can be left blank. However, if you know the fraction that corresponds to this description of person 1, please fill it in. The top of the fraction goes to the left of the slash /, and the bottom of the fraction goes to the right of the slash /. You can use the percent column instead if you prefer.

    For example, if your mother is White and your Father is Asian, the fraction would be 1/2 for both White and Asian, OR 50 percent for each. It you mother was half Black and half Asian and your Father is Asian, then you would put 3/4 to the left of Asian, and 1/4 to the left of Black OR put 75 under the percent heading to the left of Asian, and 25 under the percent heading to the left of Black.

    Hopefully the total of all the fractions will equal to one (1). Use Unknown if necessary.

    Fraction PerCent Fill-in Description

    ___ /___ _____ O American Indian or Alaska Native

    ___ /___ _____ O Asian

    ___ /___ _____ O Black

    ___ /___ _____ O Middle Eastern or North African

    ___ /___ _____ O Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

    ___ /___ _____ O White

    ___ /___ _____ O Other: _____________________________

    ___ /___ _____ O Unknown

    By allowing both fractions and percents, people can use whatever they are comfortable with, and the computer can translate it to the same final data field. People would also be allowed to fill in the circles and just leave the fractions and percents blank if they want to do that.

    What do you all think of that? Any comments from the US Census department would be quite welcome, to at least know you have seen this suggestion.

  9. Paolino says:

    By the way, my formatting was taken away when I posted my suggestion. I originally had proper spacing between the fields.

  10. Tredertinhiz says:

    The year 2020 may seem a long way away, but we’re already in full swing preparing for the next decennial census. We held an operations update to announce some of the steps we’re taking to ensure that the 2020 Census provides the highest-quality statistics about our nation’s increasingly changing population, such as how we measure race and ethnicity.

  11. g baraz says:

    where is the test i have try and call but no result

    • U.S. Census Bureau says:

      For assistance in completing the 2015 National Content Test questionnaire, please call 1-866-226-2836, Monday through Saturday from 9:00am to 12:00am EST, and Sunday from 11:00am to 12am EST. The telephone call is free.

  12. sherayah says:

    what about for mixed race?

  13. Concerned says:

    Changing how you refer to race is still referring to race. The right thing to do would be to eliminate race as a topic. But instead a new “race” is being added. One that consequently encompasses the ethnicities of all of our current military targets. I personally think we should all select “human” race because everything else is a stereotype which leads to lazy and dangerous policies. Why are we categorizing ourselves and what is the use?

  14. Pat Ortiz says:

    Why are American Indians divided into two categories only? Shouldn’t Indians north of the U.S. southern border and U.S. Indians be better identified by tribe such as Seminole, Paiute, Choctaw, Ute, Comanche, Miwok, Pueblo, Navajo, Cherokee, Wichita, Kiowa, Hopi, Mohawk, Sioux, Shoshone, etc. Many of these are mixed European blood – Spanish, French, Anglo. The U.S. American Indian should be separate from the immigrant Indian on the census data. And the native to the U.S., non-immigrant Spanish of various degrees of Indian or Anglo mix from northern New Mexico, who does not come from a Latin American country, should be isolated from the immigrant Hispanic, being non-immigrant U.S. Americans for over 150 years. These people were separate geographically from what is today called Mexico and fell under the newly formed Republic of Mexico in 1821 for only 25 years, the short lived Mexican Period of New Mexico. Prior to the Mexican Period they were governed by Spain for over 200 years and under the U.S. flag now for 166 years. This group of people lived side by side for two centuries with the U.S. Pueblo Indian, neither of these groups identify with Mexico/Mexicans, culturally nor did they adhere to Mexican nationalism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *