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Census 2020: No consensus on how to count Hispanics, Arab-Americans

Fearing undercount of minorities, civil rights groups criticize plan for new categories in next decennial survey

Civil rights groups are sounding the alarm over proposed changes to 2020 Census questionnaires, including combining the Hispanic ethnicity category with the race question.

Some of the changes under consideration may not produce the detailed count needed to enforce anti-discrimination laws and compare data over time, according to leaders of African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Arab-American groups.

At a Monday briefing, the groups called for more government testing — in more languages — of revised questions that may affect the all-important count of minorities.

Census data are used in the enforcement of a broad spectrum of civil rights laws, from fair political representation in redistricting to equal opportunity and access to housing, jobs and education.

“Ensuring a fair and accurate census is a top priority,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. “Given how much is at stake, the Census Bureau must get it right.”

As yet there was little consensus on whether the Hispanic ethnicity question should be part of the race category, said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

“Latino identity is very complicated,” she said. What it comes down to is, “Do Latinos see themselves when they see the census question?”

‘Ensuring a fair and accurate census is a top priority. Given how much is at stake, the Census Bureau must get it right.’

Wade Henderson

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Until now, Hispanic identification has been a separate ethnicity question. Those who check off that box are asked to identify what race they are among five — white, black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian or Native Hawaiian/other Pacific island.

But a growing number of people don’t identify with any of the race categories, and 6.2 percent chose “some other race” in 2010. Hispanics accounted for more than 18.5 million of the 19 million people who checked “some other race” to describe themselves.

The Census Bureau has been conducting tests and is now considering combining race and ethnicity questions. “Many researchers very much believe that Hispanic is not a race and must remain a separate ethnicity because they believe Hispanics are of many races,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant to the Leadership Conference and author of “Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census: Improving Data to Capture a Multiethnic America,” a report released Monday.

Every 10 years, when the Census Bureau attempts to count each person in the United States — numbers used to allocate funds to communities — the agency revisits the way questions are asked in the face of an increasingly multiracial and multiethnic population that no longer fits neatly into traditional classifications set by the government. In 2000, for example, the census form allowed people for the first time to select more than one race.

The census is now considering adding a Middle Eastern/North African category (MENA) to satisfy Arab-American groups’ demands that they be counted separately.

“There is no category for Arab-American, and there’s a significant undercount in the community,” said Samer Khalaf, national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Many Syrians, Egyptians, Sudanese and other MENA groups have a hard time seeing themselves as white or black, he said.

The Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey that asks about national origin counts 1.8 million Arab-Americans in the U.S. But other estimates put the number closer to 4 million, Khalaf said.

‘Many researchers very much believe that Hispanic is not a race and must remain a separate ethnicity because they believe Hispanics are of many races.’

Terri Ann Lowenthal

author, “Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census”

Minority groups are pushing to count prisoners as residents not of where they’re serving time but of where they usually live.

Among the current race categories — but not for black and white — there are 15 options for specific origin (Chinese, Samoan, Cambodian, for example).

The census now is looking to add a line to every race category for more details about respondents’ origins or tribes. Whites could write German, blacks could write Nigerian and so on. But these options may be available only to those who respond online, Lowenthal said. “We don’t know what percentage of the census will be paper in 2020,” she said.

Losing the option of selecting a detailed race group is of big concern to Asian-Americans. Access to technology has increased, but older people’s access to computers is often limited, said Terry Ao Minnis, director of census and voting programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Not including choices for subgroups of Asians on paper forms will result in less information.

The Census Bureau said it is testing several designs and that all respondents, whether they answer online or not, will have the opportunity to report detailed origin.
"Answering online via a computer is not the only way in which Census will test the inclusion of checkbox categories to collect detailed responses,” said Census spokesman Michael Cook. "These options are also being tested for designs for data collection via smartphone, tablet, in person response, and land-line phones … This research will be explored in our mid-decade testing."

“The Census Bureau must ensure that we do not move backward,” Minnis said. “We must collect better, not worse, data.”

Hispanic groups worry about the loss of statistics on Latinos of diverse racial backgrounds, such as Afro-Latinos and Indo-Caribbeans. "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,” said Census Bureau Director John Thompson in a statement.

The agency is committed to researching approaches that more accurately measure and reflect how people self-identify, and it is continuing discussions “with myriad population groups,” he said.

“We really want to keep an eye on this issue as we move forward,” Gold said. “Latinos are increasingly diverse … We want to make sure that whatever format is used, that we can get information that allows Latinos to express their identities.”

For demographers such as Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, “whatever decision is made, it is imperative that researchers be able to compare racial groups across time,” he said.

Some of his most important research was on the rapid growth and geographic dispersion of the minority child population.

“If there had been changes in definitions of minority populations between decades and if there was no way to bridge between them, we would not be able to determine how much these populations have grown through time or the likely trajectory of future growth,” he said.

Testing of new questionnaires will be conducted next spring in Maricopa County, Arizona, and in Savannah, Georgia. A national test of up to 1 million households is planned for next September. The Census Bureau will send the proposed questions to Congress by early 2017. “What’s important to realize is that the final decision on race and ethnicity questions must be made within two years,” Lowenthal said.

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