From the Left



Race question on census not so simple

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

I was more delighted than usual to see that my 2020 census form arrived in the mail the other day. It gives me something else to do at home while waiting for the novel coronavirus storm to pass.

Not much to do, fortunately. It only took about 10 minutes to fill out, not including the extra time I have spent pondering what I call the most thought-provoking question on the form, the one that asks, "What is your race?"

The race question looks simple, at first glance, but a look at how it has evolved over the years reveals it to be as complicated and changeable as our national and historical attitudes on the subject of race. In other words, it has changed in every U.S. census since the first in 1790.

If the government still can't seem to get it right, that's because so many people at so many different times have had so many different ideas of what "right" is.

Starting in 2000, for example, people of mixed-race ancestry have been allowed to check more than one racial box on the U.S. census form.

In the 2010 form, Hispanics were mentioned in a separate question, partly in response to the confusion in 2000 that resulted in about 43% of Hispanics failing to specify a race. Some even wrote in, "I am Hispanic."


Yet, that new form omitted mention of Arab, Persian, Middle Eastern or North African descent, among other significant regions, an omission protested by the Arab American Institute, which has been working with the U.S. Census Bureau for decades to be included as something more than an "other race."

Instead, the big change this year is the addition of a deeper dive into ethnicity. The form asks white and black people to provide their national "origins." Suggested examples of origins include "German," "Irish," "English," "Italian," "Lebanese" and "Egyptian."

As NPR census beat reporter Hansi Lo Wang put it, the census is now asking us, "Where are you really from?"

Although census officials were not available to explain their reasons for this particular change, it appears to be following the path of previous efforts to keep up with changing times.


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