Sensing Change: How Proposed Changes to Race and Ethnicity Questions Will Impact the 2020 Census

Does the current version of the Census Bureau’s race and ethnicity questions accurately reflect our rapidly changing population? That’s what civil rights stakeholders want to know.  Each decade the Census Bureau reviews these questions to assess their impact on civil rights policies. This begs the obvious question: Why the need?

A new report entitled “Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census: Improving Data to Capture a Multiethnic America,” is a comprehensive review of the proposed revisions to the 2020 census and their potential implications.  The report is the result of a collaborative effort between the Leadership Conference Education Fund, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), and the NALEO Educational Fund, who evaluate the proposed changes from the perspective of civil rights stakeholders to ensure that revisions will continue to “yield data that support the advancement of fairness and equity in all facets of American life.”

According to the report, for more than 150 years since the first decennial enumeration in 1790, civic leaders have used census data gleaned from the racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. population to “advance discriminatory policies and maintain positions of privilege and power for the majority.” Clearly, this is the impetus for the Census Bureau’s on-ongoing review of race and ethnicity questions at each decennial marker.

One of the report’s most interesting findings was that during the 2010 census, the Census Bureau conducted a Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE), which was the “largest effort it had ever undertaken to examine how people identify their race and ethnicity.” The AQE had several goals: 1) Increase reporting in the race and ethnicity categories established by the OMB; 2) Lower the incidence of missing answers; 3) Improve the accuracy, completeness and reliability of responses to the race and 4) Elicit and improve reporting of detailed subgroup race and ethnicity data. It used three design strategies that included both quantitative and qualitative research, but contained significant imitations, which were perceived as troubling: 1) It was conducted using English-only questionnaires; 2) It’s focus groups were conducted mostly in English, while six were conducted in Spanish and included no other in-language consultations; 3) The AQE only covered mail-out/mail-back areas (households that received and returned a census form by mail).

The result of the focus groups revealed a lack of consensus with regard to the terms “race” and “origin”, which suggests that there are serious questions regarding accuracy and validity of the data collected.

Beyond discussing the perspective of civil rights stakeholders and the relevance of race and ethnicity statistics in quest for civil rights, the report concluded with comprehensive set recommendations for the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget, focused on improving the collection of race and ethnicity data for 2020 and beyond.

If these recommendations were to be implemented, what might this mean for civil rights stakeholders? And, likewise, what opportunity does this present for African Americans and other similarly situated ethnic minorities?

Among other things, the opportunity to:

1) Maximize opportunities to accurately self-identify, self-describe, or place oneself within a group that feels welcoming and right, and

(2) Collect data that decision makers and the public can use to hold civic leaders accountable, which can be used to

effectively advance equality of access and opportunity in social, economic, and political institutions.

Overall, this report provides a timely opportunity to improve the way that “we measure the nation’s racial and ethnic composition through a contemporary, sociopolitical lens.”

Read the full report here.

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