Understanding “The Meaning of Race in a 21st Century America” Requires an Accurate Census

By Patrick McNeil, Communications Assistant

At a Center for American Progress event on Wednesday called “The Meaning of Race in a 21st Century America,” panelists spoke to America’s shifting demographics and the need for data collection tools – namely the U.S. census –  to accurately represent all communities.

Rinku Sen, president and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, said that consolidating the six most populous Asian categories, for example, would leave out huge numbers of struggling people and communities who need the backup of data in order to do their advocacy work.

“We still have to remind people that there isn’t anything biological about those definitions [of race],” Sen said. “Race as a social construct remains so critical to the way that we relate to each other, the way our institutions run, the way our politics happen, that we have to keep having a census that is sensitive to those dynamics and that helps us have the data we need to do the best we can in terms of equity and inclusion.”

Half of Latinos mark White on the census and half mark ‘other race’ – and 97 percent of these ‘other race’ responses are Latino identifiers, according to Julie Dowling, associate professor in the Department of Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Many people hypothesize that those who check White have a lighter complexion, or are more assimilated, and that those who check ‘other race’ have darker skin, which has led some to conclude that Latinos are not a racialized group and thus do not deserve the same kinds of protections. In reality, after Dowling interviewed Mexican Americans in Texas, people who checked White were not necessarily lighter or more assimilated but checked White to make a statement that ‘I am an American citizen and I want the government to recognize me.’

“The Census [Bureau] has been up to some really fantastic work in this area,” Dowling said, referring to its Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE), which is designed to combat some of this mismatched reporting.

The AQE program, conducted during the 2010 census to research new design strategies for collecting race and ethnicity data in 2020, had a national sample of almost 500,000 households (mailed questionnaires), a re-interview phase via phone with one in five of those households, and 67 focus groups across the United States and Puerto Rico.

And this research and reconfiguration of race and ethnicity questions is very much needed, according to Hilary O. Shelton, Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy at the NAACP. He reminded the audience that there’s been “a lot of hoopla” over the term ‘negro’ still being listed as an option on the census – although that term will be eliminated starting with this year’s American Community Survey.

“The idea that we’re post-racial, the idea that we live in a colorblind society, that seems to be the biggest impediment to moving somewhere,” Dowling said.

To see a video of the event, please click here.

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