The Mis-measurement of Racial Identity

By C. Soledad Espinoza

A fundamental challenge to collecting and analyzing race data is how to appropriately measure the racial identity for many Americans. The present conventions at the United States Census Bureau may undermine the accurate reporting of the full racial composition of contemporary America.

There are two major changes being considered by the U.S. Census Bureau (2014a). The first proposed revision is to combine the race and Hispanic ethnicity questions. This would allow those of Spanish descent or Latin American origin to select Hispanic/Latino as an available response alongside the standard Office of Management and Budget (OMB) race categories.1,2 The second proposed revision is to add a new category under the combined race and ethnicity questions for those of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) origin. These revisions would allow the largest ethnic groups of multi-racial ancestry to report commonly shared identities as a single response or in addition to other responses for racial identity.

The proposed changes contrast with historical precedent and the existing convention at the U.S. Census Bureau to generally attribute a white identity to these populations.3 Yet advocates and scholars have criticized the paradox of individuals from these groups being counted as white (but not treated as white), especially when many individuals from these groups do not themselves identify as white (Gómez 2007; Kahn 2010; Dowling 2014; U.S. Census Bureau 2014a; 2014b). The revised schema would be more congruent with the treatment of multi-racial persons in past decennial censuses.

Race data on blacks and whites have been collected since the first decennial census in 1790 (U.S. Census Bureau 2002). The race of native born blacks of full black ancestry have at times been separately recorded from native born blacks of “some proportion” or a “perceptible trace” of black ancestry (as mulatto, quadroons, or octoroons), whose race has never been recorded as white by convention. In contrast, for American Indians of multi-racial origins, whiteness has been available, “a person of mixed white and Indian blood should be returned as Indian, except where the percentage of Indian blood is very small, or where he is regarded as a white person by those in the community” (U.S. Census Bureau 1930).

Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the existing category of ‘Black, African American, or Negro’ “refers to a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa” (U.S. Census Bureau 2009; 2011). The category of ‘White’ refers to any “person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.  It includes people who identify as ‘White’ or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Near Easterner, Arab, or Polish.”

Current practices at the U.S. Census Bureau lead to perplexing racial classifications for Latinos of multi-racial ancestry as well. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the category ‘American Indian or Alaska Native’ “refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment”  (U.S. Census Bureau 2009; 2011).

For those persons who have deep ancestral origins in the continents of the Americas but who do not maintain ‘tribal affiliation’ or indigenous ‘community attachment,’ there is no standard OMB race category available. Of the Latino population, only 1.4 percent report being American Indian alone and another 1 percent report being American Indian in combination with another race (U.S. Census Bureau 2011). This does not reflect the indigenous racial ancestry of Latin America and of many Latinos.

Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the category ‘Some Other Race’ includes “all other responses not included in the race categories…Respondents identifying as multiracial, mixed, interracial, or a Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish group (for example, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Spanish) are included in this category” (U.S. Census Bureau 2014b). Yet, due to historical reasons, many Latinos report as white alone despite having multi-racial ancestry. In 1970, among Hispanics, 94.9 percent identified or were recorded as white.

In subsequent decades, however, there was a marked shift to many more Latinos reporting as non-white (U.S. Census Bureau 2002). For the 1980 decennial census, there was the first introduction of the term “Hispanic” and a full transition to reporting racial and ethnic identity based on self-identification (rather than based on external observation by census enumerators). From 1980 to the present, about half of Latinos have opted out of reporting as white. Among Latinos, 55.6 percent, 51.7 percent, 48.1 percent, and 53.0 percent identified as white in the 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010 decennial censuses respectively (U.S. Census Bureau 2002). See graph below.

Data compiled by the author from various decennial censuses (see U.S. Census Bureau 2002, 2012).

Source: Data compiled by the author from various decennial censuses (see U.S. Census Bureau 2002, 2012).


There has been no established trend of a rebound to Latinos—as a group—wholly identifying as white (as was presumed to be the case in the decades prior to 1980). Indeed, the most noteworthy change in the trend of race reporting among Latinos since 1980 is that the proportion reporting as white drops markedly (to about only one-in-five) when a Hispanic/Latino option is made available in a combined race and ethnic origin question format (JBS International, Inc. 2011; U.S. Census Bureau 2014b).

Broadly attributing whiteness to multi-racial groups contradicts the historical and present structure of race in America and globally. Within the current schema of the decennial census that allows for multiple responses (which was first adopted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000), there is no longer a practical need to assign single race identities to groups that have deep interracial histories. Indeed, the common terms of ‘Latino’ and ‘Middle Eastern’ are often used to reflect the inextricably multi-racial history of the respective regions. Proposed revisions would enable persons of single race or multi-racial ancestry to report a single response or choose from the array of options that they authentically identify with. For example, this would allow the reporting of Latino and black, Latino and white, or Latino and any other combination of race.

The practice of restricting and re-defining the racial identities of Latino and MENA groups to white results in mis-measurement of white identity and the relative size of other racial identities in America. Without revisions, the race data collected from the decennial census will continue to be incomplete and, in many cases inaccurate for the millions who do not partly or fully identify with any of the standard OMB races. The proposed revisions would enhance the accuracy, completeness, and validity of the self-reported data on race and ethnicity. They would also clarify the racial identity of many of the otherwise ambiguous residual race category responses now reported as ‘Some Other Race,’ which is now the third largest race category in the U.S. (and may soon become the second largest race category).


  1. The standard OMB race categories used for the 2010 census are White; Black, African American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and Some Other Race.
  2. The terms Latino and Hispanic are used interchangeably in this article.
  3. Eligibility rules for U.S. citizenship historically established the assignment of whiteness to members of Latino and MENA groups (Gómez 2007 and Gualtieri 2009).

Works Cited

  1. Dowling, Julie. 2014. Mexican Americans and the Question of Race. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  2. Gómez, Laura E. 2007. Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  3. Gualtieri, Sarah. 2009. Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
  4. JBS International, Inc. 2011. “Final Report of the Alternative Questionnaire Experiment Focus Group Research.” Bethesda, MD.
  5. Kahn, Carrie. 2010. “Arab-American Census Activist Say ‘Check It Right’” NPR. March 29th. Retrieved Jan 5. 2015.
  6. U.S. Census Bureau. 1930. “Instructions to Enumerators: Population and Agriculture.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.
  7. U.S. Census Bureau. 2002. “Historical Census Statistics on Populations Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States. Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce. Economics and Statistics Administration.
  8. U.S. Census Bureau. 2009. “Enumerator Manual 2010 Census.” Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce.
  9. U.S. Census Bureau. 2011. “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010.” Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce.
  10. U.S. Census Bureau. 2012. Census Tables DP-1 Demographic Profile Data for 2000 and 2010. American FactFinder. Retrieved Jan 5. 2015.
  11. U.S. Census Bureau 2014a. “The 2010 Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment.” Presented at Pew Research Center on March 12, 2014.
  12. U.S. Census Bureau 2014b. “Race Reporting Among Hispanics: 2010.” Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce.

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