Oakland NAACP leader George Holland said the term wasn’t acceptable to him, but questioned its removal at a time when some older African-Americans still identify as “Negroes.”
“I just don’t want to cause any friction,” he said. “I don’t want to alienate anyone.”
Government research in 2010 found that removing the term “Negro” did not lower the response rates among African-Americans.
The wording in census surveys can also be highly political: Census data are used to distribute more than $400 billion in federal aid and draw political districts and thus can elicit concern if a change were to yield a lower response.
Whether the question is asked as a race or ethnicity, it is important to count Latinos and other groups, said UC Berkeley political science professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla.
“There are important disparities in health, education and economic indicators” she said. “The only way we can target intervention and make sure the intervention is working is to track these categories.”
The government definitions of racial groups are set by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Currently, Hispanics are an ethnic group, which means although they share a common language, culture and heritage, they do not share a common race. They can be black, white, Asian, American Indian or descended from original peoples of a place colonized by Spain.
Changes to questions on census forms also must be approved by Congress.
Many demographers predict a wider range of responses on census forms and blurring of racial categories over the next 50 years as the minority population grows and interracial marriage becomes more common.
MEANWHILE … the Census Bureau is recommending that Hispanics be treated as a distinct group, a move that acknowledges their growing significance but could reduce their numbers in future surveys.
The census currently considers “Hispanics” an ethnicity, allowing people to identify both as Hispanic and as a member of a separate racial group. The proposed change would drop the ethnicity question and simply ask about race, allowing people to check a box next to choices that include black, white, or Hispanic.
The proposal concerns some Hispanic political leaders who fear that it would lead to a lower overall Hispanic count as some people of mixed origin choose to identify as white or black.
“This is a hot-button issue,” said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino policy in New York City and a community adviser to the census. “The burden will be on the Census Bureau to come up with evidence that wording changes will not undermine the Latino numbers.”
But others doubt it will undermine the numbers because Latinos who are of European, African or indigenous American descent will more likely choose Latino as their race if it’s an option.
“There’ll be a lot fewer Hispanics checking the white box,” said Tomas Jimenez, a sociology professor at Stanford University. He said the proposed change might better reflect how Latinos define themselves. If anything, making Hispanic a race “will probably mean a decrease in the population of people identifying as white,” he said.
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