The Census Bureau's headquarters in Suitland, Md.

The Census Bureau's headquarters in Suitland, Md. Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau, looking ahead to the 2020 Census, is refining race and ethnicity questions on its decennial survey to improve accuracy and reduce non-responses. The move comes after many respondents, especially Hispanics, were confused by questions about those matters in the 2010 count, officials said.

The bureau reported Wednesday that its research shows people were more likely to answer one question that asks about race and ethnicity, rather than two separate questions.

The combined race/ethnicity approach used in alternative questionnaires the bureau sent to nearly 500,000 people in 2010 had a nonresponse rate of 0.6 percent to 1.2 percent. That was substantially better than the percentage that responded to two separate questions, in which 3.5 percent to 5.4 percent didn't answer the race question, and 4.1 percent to 5.4 percent didn't answer the question about Hispanic origin.

Census Bureau director Robert Groves said the agency will continue to study how people identify themselves, calling it a "critical" need.

"We want to obtain a clear signal from them about the groups they see themselves as," he said.

Measurement of race and ethnicity has been one of the bureau's tasks since the nation's first census in 1790, he noted. The specific categories have changed as the U.S. population has shifted -- through immigration, for example.

The bureau is required to gather data in the race and ethnic categories outlined by the federal Office of Management and Budget: white; black; American Indian and Alaska Native; Asian; Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander; and Hispanic or Latino, or not Hispanic or Latino. Race and Hispanic origin data are used to monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

The bureau hopes more refined racial and ethnicity questions will increase the percentage of Americans reporting in these OMB categories.

"Many Hispanics said they don't fit into the OMB" race classifications, Nicholas Jones, the bureau's racial statistics branch chief, said at the news conference. Hispanics can be of any race.

Noting the racial mixture of many Latinos, Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Amityville-based Long Island Immigrant Alliance, said in an interview, "So, just by virtue of being Latino, you're being excluded by this conception of race that you're either white or you're black."

Among the bureau's findings:

While the "some other race" category was created to be a small, residual one, it was the third-largest race group in the 2010 Census, behind "White Alone" and "Black Alone," with the vast majority of respondents being Hispanics.

Black population estimates were not affected by removal of the term "Negro," deemed offensive or outdated by many African-Americans, from the "black, African-American or Negro" category on the experimental questionnaires.

Focus-group feedback called for a separate category for Middle Eastern, North African or Arab residents, with many criticizing their placement in the "white" racial grouping as "wrong and inaccurate," Jones said.

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