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How Can 2020 Census Measure Latino Race-Ethnicity?

Civil rights groups are keeping watch on how the U.S. Census is testing the race-ethnicity question for Latinos.
Image: Eva Longoria
Actress Eva Longoria speaks at an event launching The Latino Victory Project, a Latino political action committee, at the National Press Club in Washington, Monday, May 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Charles Dharapak / AP

Civil rights groups are paying close attention to the U.S. Census Bureau's plans to conduct critical field tests next year for the 2020 Census, particularly on how to design questions on race and ethnicity.

The race and ethnicity question is considered key by civil rights groups and others because of the changed demographics of the country, projected to have no ethnic majority by 2050.

“Given the unprecedented growth in our nation’s diversity, it’s more important than ever that the next Census collect detailed data that illuminate the lives of all Americans,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a conference call with reporters before the Thanksgiving break.

Hispanic is considered an ethnicity and Hispanics or Latinos can be of any race. On the 2010 Census, Hispanics were allowed to choose between black, white or other in the race category. About 18 million Hispanics chose “other.”

Currently there is no consensus in the Latino community on the best way for the Census to ask Hispanics about of their race and ethnicity.

Latinos checked “other” more often on the 2010 Census than other populations, said Rosalind Gold, a senior director with National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, also known as NALEO. “We want to know more about who those 'others' are.”

Census also conducted an experiment in 2010 with a combined question that was sent to some households. Some Latino groups felt the combined question reduced the count of the Latino population, although Census felt it got similar Latino samples with both questions.

Gold said there is no consensus in the Latino community on the best way to ask the question on race and ethnicity of Latinos. But the groups do agree they want the 2020 Census to have a race and ethnicity question that provides an accurate count of Latinos; provides good, detailed information on subgroups and gives Latinos with multiracial or multiethnic identities a chance to reflect that.

The question used in the experiment raised concerns about the ability of a combined question to capture good information on Latino subgroups and national groups.

"As the bureau moves forward, it needs to be transparent and inclusive, to listen to different stakeholders in different ethnic groups. As it moves forward with design (of the 2020 Cenus), it needs to let us know what it's doing and be responsive to input," Gold said.

Federal funding is distributed, political district boundaries are drawn and many other decisions are made based on Census data. In addition, race and ethnicity data are “irreplaceable tools for administering anti-discrimination laws across all sectors," said Terry Lowenthal, author of a report on the work by Census to design the 2020 forms.

Several of the concerns expressed in the report have been previously communicated to the Census bureau by the civil rights groups who said they have been monitoring the work on the 2020 Census for four and a half years.

Census spokesman MIchael C. Cook said the bureau remains committed "to conducting thorough research to identify solutions that most accurately measure and reflect how people identify their race and ethnicity." Cook said that in order to get that information, "research and discussions are underway between the statistical agencies and myriad population groups and this will inform how the 2020 Decennial Census is conducted.”

The Census has a major field test date tenatively scheduled for Sept. 1 of next year. On that day, the Census Bureau will test potential content of the 2020 Census with 1 million households. That test will include revisions to the race and ethnicity question.

By April 1, 2017, the Census Bureau must provide topics for the 2020 Census to Congress and then a year later provide questions.