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Census Bureau Considers Combining Race And Ethnicity Question On Form

What's in a name? The U.S. Census Bureau is studying the best way to formally classify the country's fastest growing population. The change could be part of the next census count, and the issue is generating a lot of talk.


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The word “Hispanic” was chosen by the federal government in the 70s to get a definitive handle on the growing demographic group that was multiracial and multiethnic. Now the Census wants to combine two questions on race and ethnicity into one:

“More and more Hispanics are thinking of themselves as a separate race, as opposed to an ethnic group.”

That’s UH Professor Lupe Salinas, who spent 30 years working with the Census Bureau. He says ethnic groups are based on cultural criteria and races are based on biological criteria, but the precise criteria that goes into the two is socially determined.

“They had Spanish surnamed Americans, where they compared last names to a list. And while ‘Hernandez’ and ‘Salinas’ might work well, what about ‘Martin’? Is it ‘Martin’, or is it ‘Mar-TEEN?’ And then they asked people, ‘What language is your mother tongue?’ So, there was a category called ‘Spanish mother-tongued Americans’. All of these had so much noise in the data in trying to collect it that they included a question on the full census, on Hispanic background.”

Dr Laura Murillo is president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce:

“If they’re putting an effort to sending out this Census information and they’re making a big effort to get it back, you would think that someone within the Census would sit down and get a group of people that are Hispanic, Latino, and figure out what is the most appropriate way that we can make sure that we are represented.” 

She thinks the Census is determining a specific identity for a reason.

“I know traditionally some Hispanics, Latinos do not identify with the word ‘Hispanic’, and that goes back to the government really creating this word. The reality is that we need to be classified. We need to be counted, because at the end of the day, the Census provides resources to communities. And last time I checked, there’s not a community that is ‘other’ that brings resources to the city or the state.”

The Census Bureau will continue to test a combined race and Hispanic-origin question to improve accuracy and detailed reporting. Congress won’t decide on the change until 2018 when the wording of the 2020 census is approved.

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