Exploring the Race and Ethnicity Question

How the question has evolved over the years to provide a more accurate picture of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders

by Raima Roy

The census form is primarily a straight forward survey that asks people basic questions about themselves and their household, such as age. However, when it comes to the race and ethnicity questions, understanding and answering these questions can become slightly more complicated. Through our with Dan Ichinose, Director of the Demographic Research Project at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles, we provide some clarity and context for these questions by exploring the history of the Race question. We demonstrate how it has evolved over the decades, what changes to these questions were suggested to achieve more accurate data collection, and how these questions will be asked on the 2020 Census form.

Timeline on the History of the Race Question

Below is a brief timeline to show how the Race question has changed with the times to more accurately reflect the United States’ increasingly diverse population as it relates to the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities. The highlighted categories are the ones newly introduced for that decennial census that reflect AANHPI communities.

Abandoned Effort to Modernize the Race and Ethnicity Questions

With the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau considered making a few changes to the race and ethnicity questions. The Bureau conducted their Alternative Questionnaire Experiment during the 2010 census, which explored three core changes: (1) the merging of the race and Hispanic origin questions (2) the creation of a Middle Eastern, North African (MENA) race category and (3) the capturing of subgroups for all race groups using check boxes. Historically, the Bureau asked about race and Hispanic origin separately since Hispanic/Latino is an ethnicity rather than a race. However, many Latinos did not see themselves represented in the race question, which had no response option of Hispanic or Latino. This resulted in people either skipping the race question or choosing the “Some Other Race” option. Similarly, members of the MENA community do not feel they are accurately represented in the race question, with their options for identification being “White” (as defined by the government) or “Some Other Race.” Unfortunately, the Office of Management and Budget under the current administration declined to revise their standards, which would have allowed these changes to be adopted. Thus, the Census Bureau had to abandon its efforts to modernize the way the census asks about race and ethnicity.

Census 2020: Race and Ethnicity Questions

The form will include two questions: first, the 2020 Census will ask the Hispanic origin question and then it will follow up with the race question.

Question on Ethnicity

Question on Race

The subgroup check boxes for the Asian American community, as well as the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, are ordered based on population size. For example, Chinese Americans are the largest Asian American population, Filipino Americans are the second largest, and Indian Americans are the third. These check boxes are an important element to the census, where they allow the Census Bureau to recognize the ethnic diversity within the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities and promote access to disaggregated data to better reflect the needs of individual AANHPI communities.

Given the tremendous ethnic diversity within our communities, it’s a challenge to include check boxes for all ethnic groups. But smaller subgroups can still self-identify — they will be able to use the write-in box if their ethnicity is not included as a check box on the form. For people unsure of which box to check or what they should write in, the Census Bureau will provide a glossary of possible responses. For example, a person from Hawaii might identify themselves as “Kanaka Maoli” instead of “Native Hawaiian.” The Census Bureau’s glossary would list that people who identify as “Kanaka”, “Kanaka Moali” or “Native Hawaiian” should check “Native Hawaiian.”

People who are more than one race will also have the option to check off more than one box and write in multiple responses — a concept introduced with the 2000 Census. This option allows for a more inclusive measurement of race and reflects the diversity of the United States’ population. Within the Asian American community, 15 percent of the population is multiracial. For example, in the Japanese American population, 35 percent of the population is multiracial. Within NHPI communities, 56 percent of the Pacific Islander population is multiracial while 69 percent of the Native Hawaiian population is multiracial. Therefore, it is crucial for the census to allow people of multiple races to accurately mark their identity on the form by giving them the option to check more than one box.

The race question is an important component of the census that provides critical information about the varied needs of our diverse communities. Often viewed as homogeneous, AANHPIs include more than 50 ethnic groups that can differ dramatically across key social and economic indicators. The race question helps gather disaggregated data that allows for the identification of different health, education, and other issues within Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. It is only with that data, we can then address those issues and find solutions which can then be addressed to the benefit of the entire community.

This blog is also available in Chinese.



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Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AsianAmericans to participate in our democracy.