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Race: Are we so different

A blog looking at the changing face of race around our region, created in cooperation with Pacific Science Center, the University of Washington Department of Communication and the City of Seattle Race and Justice Initiative

December 26, 2013 at 6:30 AM

Race project | Answering question on race is harder than you think

From the 2010 Census Bureau's questionnaire

From the 2010 Census Bureau’s questionnaire

What’s your race? That’s a question thousands of Americans answer each day. Whether it’s on an application for college, an employment form, or at the doctor’s office – the question is everywhere.

Many versions of the race and ethnicity question have been written. However, it wasn’t until 2000 when Americans were given the opportunity to identify as multiple races on the U.S Census.

Immigration and growth in diversity wasn’t a new concept. But it was only after the Office of Management and Budget discovered an increase in the number of multi-racial children in 1997 when it decided the questionnaire ought to allow more than one category to be marked.

From 2000 to 2010, census data showed a 32 percent increase in the number of people who reported identifying with two or more races, rising from 6.8 million to over 9 million.

As the United States continues to diversify, some have concerns about whether the government’s current method is the best way to ask for a person’s background. At the Pacific Science Center, a current exhibition that explores concepts of race poses that same question. Multiple exhibit-goers – and many other Americans – are divided on the answer. But as the exhibit points out, there are several options to consider past the traditional protocol.

A section of the Pacific Science Center’s show is devoted to presenting information about history and progress of the race and ethnicity question. As the exhibit deliberates what improvements the future census surveys will to need to make, a display offers four different versions of the question for the viewer to contemplate. An explanation of the pros and cons of each option is listed and the exhibit encourages people to vote on how they personally feel the question should be asked, if at all.

The “RACE: Are We So Different?” exhibition provides four options:

  •  The first option is identical to what was asked on the 2010 census, including the Hispanic origin question.
  • The second option excludes the Hispanic origin question and overall simplifies the race categories by not listing sub-groups that the census includes now. The categories are also alphabetized, which is believed to prevent associations of superiority to assigned races.
  • In the third option it proposes the census to leave out all categories, leaving a blank space and prompting census-takers to fill in how they want to identify themselves.
  • The last option suggests that the government throws out the question altogether and questions whether the census bureau should even request information on a person’s race and ethnicity, given that some people feel it invades their privacy.

Since the census was first initiated in 1790, the inclusion of the race and ethnicity question has predominately remained to chart the American population and make adjustments in political representation to better apportion the legislature. In more recent decades however, the data has been collected to track discrimination among minority groups and analyze social progress.

Charles Hirschman, sociology professor at the University of Washington, says he doesn’t think having the question be completely open-ended would be the most accurate because it might confuse census-takers.

“People want to know what you mean,” Hirschman said.

Hirschman explains that when people are asked about their ethnicity they often need specification because there is usually a difference between how people perceive themselves and how people think others judge them.

Even though in the recent censuses people had the option to mark multiple race categories, Hirschman says that not everyone chooses to report their background. In a New York Times article, it was revealed that President Obama had only filled in African-American even though he has a white mother.

In a Washington Post article Obama says, “I’m an African American, but I am somebody, like many African Americans, who has all kinds of stuff in him…You should have seen Thanksgiving, we were like the United Nations…But I self-identify as an African American. That’s how I am treated and that’s how I am viewed and I’m proud of it.”

To improve the question, Hirschman would like to combine the two questions on Hispanic origin and race and ethnicity. Unlike the second option the exhibit at the Pacific Science Center proposes, Hirschman would also advocate for the question to include more sub-categories for census-takers to choose from. He thinks pairing the more traditional question with an open-ended one would be very useful in analyzing the results.

Seattle resident, Rebecca Stephans, thought that after viewing the exhibition she most agreed with having the question be left completely open-ended because it sets no limitations on how people choose to identify themselves.

“As currently written, the language [used in the question] guides the census-taker and influences how they respond,” Stephans said.

Another exhibit-goer, Declan O’Neil, agreed that the current question is in need of some changes; he finds the format and wording to be outdated and overly complicated.

O’Neil said that if the data collected was actually put to good use in tracking discrimination then he would choose option two because of it’s simplicity. He liked the open-ended option of number three, but wasn’t certain it would be an easy way to track the data or result in better accuracy.

It also turns out that even the Census Bureau has been thinking about how to ask residents about race in the next census.

In a National Public Radio (NPR) story, it reports that the Census Bureau is “considering numerous changes to the 2020 survey in an effort to improve the responses of minorities and more accurately classify Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern and multiracial populations.”


| Topics: Census, Race, selected

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