2020 US Census Race and Ethnicity Questions

The US Census Bureau considered making some changes to the race and ethnicity questions for the 2020 census. Past censuses have required responses to both questions on race and Hispanic origin and specifically stated Hispanic origins are not races. They considered combining the two questions, but have decided to keep them separate. Per government guidelines, people from the Middle East and North Africa are considered white. The Census Bureau considered and rejected the idea of adding a separate check box for these people.

What they are changing is they will require whites and blacks to write in origin information underneath their race. Past censuses (but not 2010) have asked a separate origin question as well.

I support keeping race and Hispanic origin separate, but I disagree with the added origin question for whites and blacks because I believe it will generate useless information. Most black Americans are descendants of slaves and do not know their specific origin beyond African-American. Most white Americans have multiple origins and will favor putting down an origin where they have more recent ancestry and ignore a larger amount of ancestry from colonial times, etc.

I have some more thoughts on this that I will share later when I have some more time, but I wanted to go ahead and get the discussion started. What do you think about the race and ethnicity categories?

I imagine this ruffles feathers all over the place.

I think they’re horribly confusing for most people. AFAICT, they were separated out primarily to inflate the number of people we count as “Hispanic”, but whatever.

Here are the couple of other things I wanted to point out. Here are the numbers and percentages of Americans identifying of English ancestry from 1980-2010 based on the Census and American Community Survey:

1980 49,598,035 26.3%
1990 32,651,788 13.1%
2000 24,515,138 8.7%
2010 25,927,345 8.4%

I would expect some decline in the percentage, but the decline of 24 million in absolute numbers cannot be explained by demographic changes. Part of what’s happening is that most English ancestry is from colonial times and it’s not very salient. Many of these people end up identifying as of American ethnicity or with another ancestry where they have a more recent ancestor, even if it only makes up a small portion of their ancestry. This is an example of why I don’t think this information will really be useful. Another point- I don’t have a cite offhand, but I’ve read that Irish ancestry tends to get overstated.

The other thing I wanted to bring up is ethnic attrition among people of Hispanic ancestry. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 2% of the total U.S. population is of partial Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish ancestry but does not identify as Hispanic. Hispanics have a high intermarriage rate and, by the third generation, a solid majority of descendants of Hispanic immigrants have non-Hispanic ancestry as well. Only 35% of married third-generation Hispanics have a Hispanic spouse, compared to 63% of the second generation and 93% of Hispanic immigrants.

To tie this all together, let me use myself as an example. Three of my grandparents were born in the United States and nearly all of their ancestry goes back to colonial times. Based on genealogy research, as best I can tell, a solid majority (but not all) of that appears to be of English origin. My other grandparent is a Spanish-speaking immigrant from Central America. Like most Central Americans, that grandparent is of European and Native American ancestry.

In the 2010 census, I checked yes for Hispanic and indicated which country and then white for race. Confronted with the 2020 census, I would do the same and indicate English as origin underneath the race response.

A little bit of anecdata- In 2010, I was a census taker and I got a few interesting responses. About half of Hispanic respondents would try to give a Hispanic origin as a race. We were are instructed to repeat the instruction that Hispanic origins are not races. If they insisted after that, we were told to check “some other race” and write in their response. Some people just couldn’t get the distinction we were trying to make. One other response that comes to mind were the people who made me write in “Arab-American” even though they had a sheet of definitions that said that counted as white. i just did it and my understanding is that would be re-coded as white when they tabulated the data.

This was my point earlier. If half the participants misunderstand the question, it’s a bad question.

Well, I’m from California and both of my parents were American, so, yeah. That’s not gonna be much help to them…

“White American” is in my opinion a silly / fake ethnic category anyway (it’s too broad to be meaningful), so I’m entirely in favour of asking people to be more specific about what their ethnic origins are.

Black Americans are in a separate category here since in most cases their ethnic identities were forcibly taken from them when they were enslaved (though I’ve heard about a few cases of people using modern day genetic testing to get a decent idea of where in Africa their families might have been from). White Americans aren’t in the same boat though so there’s no reason not to ask for additional information where you can get it.

“Require” is a weird word to use in this context anyway- the Census Bureau isn’t going to jail or fine you for leaving a space blank.

Middle Easterners are certainly treated as a different race, which is the only relevant standard for “race” categories, anyway, so it really doesn’t make sense to lump them in as “white”.

And I have no idea what they’re trying to get at with “origin”, or how they expect people to answer that one.

Maybe it would just be easiest to have a section labeled “Race/ethnicity”, with a big list of (potentially overlapping) categories, and “check all that apply”.

Mine certainly does. By actual ancestry, I’m only 3/16 Irish (and over half German), but for a variety of reasons it’s the part of my ancestry which I identify most strongly with.

Basically the OMB requires it, but the Census doesn’t think that it means as much as a lot of people in this tread do.

In addition.

Note how Middle Easterners were not included.

The interesting part about this data is what people identify as, and there isn’t much value in some deeper context outside of that self identification.
Middle Easterners have been Caucasian under most historical racial groupings forever.


The latest breakout of Middle Easterners seems odd outside of a current anti-immigration stance. I think it is a positive step that this new “race” wasn’t added to the OMB requirements.

I have to go back to 1650 or so to find an ancestor not born in the US. Then English, Scots, Welsh, Dutch, German and French.

I from northern Appalachia, so I think I will put down White Trash.

I’ve been answering “Other”, and if more is needed “American”. I do not accept government classification of my race or ethnicity, because it leads too easily to worse things. Less than a hundred years ago, my marriage would have stripped me of my citizenship because of my spouse’s origin. While our country has made great progress since then, recent events have made clear how powerful racist forces are.

I admire the courage of those who proclaim their origin. If it were just myself, I’d have more. But Census records persist for forever. And I do not wish to risk my descendants more than I need to, so I’ll keep my official records as unrevealing as possible.

What if you don’t know your origins? I know everyone is all excited about ancestry, but what if you don’t give a flying fig?

I’m going to put down that my people come from Mesopotamia where they split off from Homo erectus.

I disagree. Based on the self-identifications I’ve gotten from Americans, many will either go by patrilineal descent or, if they know that So-and-So came with the Mayflower or that they’re related to someone famous, by a label or combination which uses that line of descent.

My father-in-law used to put down Asian - he said that since the US forced him to go to Vietnam, he considered that his federally appointed racial classification. Yeah, he was a pretty angry vet.

My Arab and Persian friends wish that they could be counted in the census - but then they wonder if they really want to be highlighted as well.

The non-white Hispanic block tends to irritate some of my Mecha colleagues.

Then we get those of mixed “race”…