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Census Bureau seeks to update how it measures race

  • August 8, 2012 - 6:09 PM

To keep pace with rapidly changing notions of race, the Census Bureau wants to make broad changes to its surveys that would treat 'Hispanic' as a distinct category regardless of race, end use of the term "Negro" and offer new ways to identify Middle Easterners.

The recommendations released Wednesday stem from government research on the best ways to count demographic groups. The wording in census surveys can also be highly political: census data are used to distribute more than $400 billion in federal aid and draw political districts and thus can elicit concern if a change were to yield a lower response.

The research is based on an experiment conducted during the 2010 census in which nearly 500,000 households were given forms with the race and ethnicity questions worded differently. The findings show that many people who filled out the traditional form did not feel they fit within the five government-defined categories of race: white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native; when questions were altered to address this concern, response rates and accuracy improved notably.

For instance, because Hispanic is defined as an ethnicity and not a race, about 18 million Latinos -- or about 37 percent -- used the "some other race" category. Under one proposed change, a new question would simply ask a person's race or origin, allowing them to check a single box next to choices including black, white, or Hispanic.

The other changes would drop use of "Negro," leaving a choice of "black" or African-American, as well as add write-in categories that would allow Middle Easterners and Arabs to specifically identify themselves.

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