Like a dinner host chatting up new guests at the table, the U.S. Census Bureau wants to know Hispanics better. The Bureau is considering changes to its questionnaire, to make it easier for Latinos to identify themselves. Spokesperson Karen Humes told NPR that the agency is “expanding our understanding of how people identify their race and Hispanic origin. It can change over time.”
Those in favor of the possible changes say they will lead to a more accurate snapshot of America’s Hispanics. Those against the changes worry that a new format could depress Latino numbers. The truth is that the Bureau is on the right track. It must keep pace with our increasingly diverse society – and tweaking the decennial questionnaire is overdue.
The 2010 census form left many Hispanics perplexed. While Question 8 asked whether a person was of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin, Question 9 was problematic. It asked respondents their race, and the possible answers were white, Black, American Indian, Asian, or “some other race.” Even more confusing, Question 9 also presented choices like Filipino, Samoan, and Korean, which are definitely not a race. Latinos could be excused for wondering,“What box are we supposed to check?”
No surprise, then, that over 18 million Hispanics picked “some other race” – comprising 97 percent of those who chose this category. This mismatch between Latino identity and the census options needs to be fixed. As Harvard professor Mary C. Waters told the New York Times, “Whenever you have people who can’t find themselves in the question, it’s a bad question.”
For Latinos, identity is a layered concept. We can be white, black, Asian, or multiracial. A Pew Study last year found that a majority of Hispanics identify themselves by their family’s country of origin (such as Mexican, or Argentinean). Only 24 percent called themselves Latino or Hispanic. So any changes to the census form should allow for choices based on national origin and multiracial backgrounds, in addition to a Hispanic/Latino option.
To those who think the government has no business inquiring about race, think again. Information from the census is used in everything from scientific research to monitoring disparities in education and health care. These statistics are a vital measure of political power, because they are used in redistricting (The Latino population growth reported in the 2010 census led to eight new Congressional seats). Census figures are also used to enforce civil rights laws and as a safeguard against discrimination in housing and lending.
To their credit, the Census Bureau has formed an advisory council on racial and ethnic populations, and experimented with alternative versions of its questionnaire. Yet change comes slowly. It was only in 2000 that respondents were allowed to check off more than one race. And the term “Negro” still appeared on the 2010 forms (it may finally be dropped in 2020).
True, revamping the questionnaire could prove confusing. But the upside is clearly worth the effort. Consider that the 2010 census, despite its flaws, still produced a record count of 50 million Hispanics; improving the methodology will only make the results more accurate. In fact, when the Bureau tested a form that combined the Hispanic origin and race questions, there was a dramatic drop in the number of respondents who chose “some other race.”
The Bureau rightly recognizes that their current racial and ethnic categories need to be adjusted. Changing the questionnaire will not only produce better results, it will help Latinos increase our civic, social, and political engagement. That’s a winning option for the Bureau, for Hispanics, and for the nation.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.