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Social Explorer urges caution with proposed changes to Census Bureau’s race, ethnicity question

TUESDAY, MAY 21, 2024

Changes in the U.S. Census Bureau’s racial and ethnic classifications may hamper the nation’s ability to monitor disparities and the enforcement of civil rights laws aimed at helping historically disadvantaged groups, according to a new report in Survey Practice.
Andrew Beveridge, president and co-founder of Social Explorer, wrote that collapsing racial and ethnic questions into a single query, and adding a new – but vague – category for Americans of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent could create barriers for obtaining accurate data.
“The widespread use and enormous implications of changes in how the United States collects race and ethnicity data mean that we should be very cautious about changes like the ones that have been proposed,” wrote Beveridge and co-author Margo Anderson, “and we think it would be wise to make these mandated data classifications both as simple as possible for the U.S. population to understand their meaning and to apply them in the many areas where they are to be used.”
The Census Bureau created the latest round of classifications in 1977, with separate questions for ethnicity (Hispanic and non-Hispanic) and race (White, Black, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, and other). It tweaked the categories slightly in 1997 when it allowed respondents to describe
themselves as members of more than one race.


The Obama administration began considering the latest changes, proposing to consolidate the two-question format into one question and adding an option for people to describe themselves as members of a Middle Eastern and North African race. The proposal was dropped by the Trump administration but has resurfaced.

The addition of a MENA category is particularly problematic, according to Beveridge and Anderson. For example, the PL94-171 release of decennial Census data, which is used for congressional apportionment and redistricting, classifies people from Turkey as White; the annual American Community Survey (ACS), which is used to direct trillions of federal dollars, classifies them as Mideastern.

“The current array of race groups in the standard have stood the test of time and do include quite easily definable groups based upon historical patterns of discrimination,” Beveridge and Anderson noted. “It is not obvious that this is currently true for MENA.

Collapsing the ethnicity questions also could have unintended consequences, the authors said. A questionnaire with open-ended options – rather than the traditional option of checking one of two boxes —  is likely to reduce the number of respondents within some groups and increase the number of
multiracial Americans, leaving officials to guess at whether the new methods or actual demographic change was responsible.

Beveridge and Anderson recommended that the Census Bureau conduct additional research into the MENA category to determine the best way to present the new category; construct a crosswalk to ensure that a time series analysis of the classification is still possible; and do more research into the best
methods for obtaining more complex racial and ethnic identification.

“Using an open-ended question for this purpose for a census of over 330 million residents seems an especially heavy and expensive burden, especially for a project that is not mandated, and may cause severe difficulties in continuing to implement mandated monitoring of disparities and civil rights among ethnic and racial groups who have been historically disadvantaged,” they concluded.

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