The Evolution of Race and Ethnicity Classifications in the Decennial Census

K'Treana Taylor, 2, eats a hot dog at a community resource fair in Galveston, Texas, to explain the importance of participating in the 2010 Census.

See also: “Infographic: Government Collection of Race and Ethnicity Data” by Farah Z. Ahmad and Jamal Hagler

The U.S. decennial census is one of the nation’s most important government programs, offering much more than just the population count used to determine each state’s representation in Congress. The decennial census provides essential data, demographic and otherwise, that inform the allocation of vast government resources. Results often serve as the basis for federal, state, and local public policies, ranging from funding new infrastructure projects to providing increased job opportunities for workers. This makes the decennial census particularly important for communities of color, which face significant gaps compared to their non-Hispanic white counterparts in indicators of economic security and opportunity such as education, employment, and health.

While the data collected from smaller U.S. Census Bureau surveys—such as the Current Population Survey—are sufficient for some purposes, the decennial census provides a unique opportunity to compile a massive amount of information on many different groups. The resulting data set is large enough for disaggregation—meaning the extrapolation of data by various subgroup characteristics—a process that can provide a much clearer picture of the landscape for specific groups and their particular needs. This is especially relevant for smaller demographic groups—for example, national origin groups within the Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, community such as Cambodian, Chinese, and Bangladeshi Americans. In the absence of large data sets based on accurate race and ethnicity survey questions, crucial information would remain unknown and investments in communities who could benefit most would potentially be overlooked.

As concepts of race and ethnicity have evolved and the population has shifted, the methods and language used to record race and ethnicity in the census have changed as well. Revisions or additions are made each decade, underscoring the complexity of collecting data on identity and classification. As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the Census Bureau will continue to face challenges to properly classifying the nation’s residents and assessing the state of American households. Changes in both survey content and format should be carefully considered, as they are critical to policy formation and creating an equitable future for all Americans.

Over the past two centuries, the Census Bureau has routinely adjusted its survey questions in an attempt to better capture the demographic characteristics of the nation’s population. Many of these changes are illuminated in a 2009 article by Karen Humes and Howard Hogan in the journal Race and Social Problems. In 1960, for example, the Census Bureau replaced the longstanding practice of census enumerators going to households in person and recording observed characteristics of household residents with a process of self-reporting in which individuals receive questionnaires and dictate their own answers. Another major change came with the addition of the Hispanic origin question in 1970, marking the first time the Census Bureau collected data on ethnicity in addition to data on race. Individuals were given the option to select more than one race for the first time in 2000.

While significant events have sometimes influenced census questions—including the abolishment of slavery and, according to Humes and Hogan, changes in the supply and demand of labor, the addition of new states such as Hawaii, and the growth of specific populations—changes have also come about as the result of routine field experiments or tests of survey questions conducted by the Census Bureau. Beginning in the mid-20th century, the Census Bureau began conducting several tests in the decade prior to each decennial census as time and funding permitted. Today, these tests can include a variety of techniques such as focus groups, one-on-one interviews in which respondents discuss what they are thinking as they fill out a draft questionnaire, and behavioral coding that records behavioral data during an interaction between interviewers and respondents. The Census Bureau also conducts dress rehearsals in the field, which serve as a complete test of the data collection components under conditions that mirror the full implementation.

The analysis of test findings ultimately serves as the platform for recommendations given to the Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, in the Executive Office of the President—the office with the authority to define the race and ethnicity categories that all federal agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau, must use to collect data—and to Congress, which can express approval or disapproval of changes to the decennial census questionnaire and has the ability to pass legislation requiring changes. Based on 2010 testing, for example, the Census Bureau decided that the removal of the term “Negro” from the decennial census race category “Black, African Am., or Negro” would not make a significant difference in reporting accuracy. This finding, coupled with complaints from many respondents that the term offended them, makes it likely that “Negro” will be removed from future questionnaires beginning with the 2020 Census.

Census questionnaire tests continue to explore potential changes to race and ethnicity questions. One such test—the National Content Test, planned for September 1, 2015—will collect a nationally representative sample, including Puerto Rico, with oversampling of key population groups. This test will, among other things, gauge the effects of consolidating the race and ethnicity questions into one combined question. Additionally, the Census Bureau is working to develop and test survey questions that encompass formerly underrepresented or unrepresented groups. For example, after lobbying from advocacy groups, the bureau is considering the inclusion of a distinct Middle Eastern or North African, or MENA, category, a potentially significant shift. U.S. residents of Middle Eastern or North African descent have historically been included in the “white” category, which according to Humes and Hogan, has remained fairly constant over time, changing only from “free white females and males” in 1790 to “white” in 1850.

Outside advocacy groups are an important driver of change in how the Census Bureau records race and ethnicity. For instance, various civil rights and advocacy groups have expressed concern that proposed changes to the 2020 Census regarding how AAPI data is collected—such as a replacing check boxes of detailed national origin groups with a general write-in box—will result in less detailed reporting and lost distinction between some ethnicities or national origins. Their contentions are supported by results from the bureau’s own 2010 Alternative Questionnaire Experiment, which demonstrated that write-in boxes may indeed result in lost distinctions. Better methods to capture disaggregated information on specific national origin groups within the exceptionally diverse AAPI population—the nation’s fastest-growing racial group—are currently under consideration by the Census Bureau.

Other advocates, such as the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, feel that more disaggregated information is necessary for accurate representation. This organization, for instance, has submitted recommendations to the Census Bureau suggesting that options to identify as “Afro-Latino” and Afro-Caribbean” be added to the black or African American question. They believe that this would prevent undercounting of populations of African descent, as some of these groups do not identify as black or African American. There is precedent for such an effort; in the 1990s, multiracial advocacy groups pushed for the inclusion of multiracial people in federal data collection. OMB decided in 1997 that all people can identify with as many races as they wish—a change that was adopted in the 2000 Census and onward.

The census plays a vital role in providing accurate population data so that policymakers, community organizations, and local leaders can use this information to create policies that will close the racial and ethnic disparities prevalent the United States today. As the Census Bureau continues preparations for the upcoming 2020 Census, it is important to recognize the complexity of categorizing the diverse population of the United States. The Census Bureau should be vigilant in testing and evaluating potential changes to racial and ethnic categories and questions, as well as take into account the views of relevant advocacy organizations. Ensuring that everyone is accurately counted is essential to creating policy solutions that will provide equal opportunity for all.

Farah Z. Ahmad is a Senior Policy Analyst for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress. Jamal Hagler is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050 at the Center.