The Boston Globe

What’s in a US Census question? If it’s about race, a lot.

- MARCELA GARCÍA Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.

As a Mexican American immigrant, I have been baffled by the questions on race and ethnicity included in the US Census form. When filling out the 2020 edition of the questionna­ire, I easily answered the one about Hispanic origin. Then came the question on race. Am I white? It didn’t feel right to check that, even though I kind of look white-ish. Could I check American Indian, since I could potentiall­y be a descendant of an Aztec princess? Alas, that’s something my husband and I joke about and not the stuff of official government forms.

After much internal debate, I checked “some other race.” It was the least problemati­c option and one chosen by many other people, apparently, which led to an increase in that category’s count.

That in turn led to some internal soul-searching at the US government, which started studying changes to update its standards for the collection of race and ethnicity data. Last week, federal officials announced those revisions, which will impact the way people are defined, labeled, and counted in US Census forms.

The well-meaning changes are an effort to better identify people of color, and to provide a more meaningful count of the nuanced identities behind different groups of minorities.

Will there ever be a perfect race and ethnicity question? Is this one of those “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” policy situations?

But the revisions raise important concerns and muddle the identity issue a lot more. Make no mistake, these changes have huge implicatio­ns on voting rights and redistrict­ing issues, for the US Census is used to inform and shape policymaki­ng, research, electoral districts, and other big civil rights decisions.

That’s why not everyone is happy about the government’s effort to fine-tune the collection of race and ethnicity data.

The main shift is that the US Census form will now ask about race and ethnicity in a single question. “What is your race and/or ethnicity?”

If only it were that simple.

The form then presents people with different checkboxes, as reported by NPR’s journalist Hansi Lo Wang. For instance, under “Black or African American,” there are more checkboxes offered — such as “Nigerian” or “Jamaican” — and a blank space to enter other options not presented, such as “Brazilian” or “Puerto Rican” if the person identifies as such.

Here’s where the confusion comes. Under the “Hispanic or Latino” box, there are subcategor­ies like “Mexican” and “Puerto Rican.” Presumably a Black Puerto Rican person is expected to select the “Black of African American” box and the “Hispanic or Latino” box, plus the “Puerto Rican” checkbox under the latter. Easy enough, I suppose.

The big conundrum is, how are the data going to be interprete­d or recoded by census officials? Is that person’s race going to be counted under the Black population totals or under multiracia­l? What about the count of Afro Latinos? Experts are afraid that the changes will lead to reductions in that population’s numbers, thus threatenin­g the integrity of the race and ethnicity data.

A group of Black Latinx advocates and academics have sounded the alarm around the proposed revisions. They are worried about the conflation of race and ethnicity and launched a website called “Latino is not a race.”

“Race and ethnicity are not concordant or interchang­eable,” wrote a coalition of 100+ signatorie­s — including researcher­s, activists, and scholars in the fields of population studies, statistics, and sociology, among others — in an official comment submitted to the federal government.

In their letter, the experts “define race as one’s social status based on the conglomera­tion of physical characteri­stics (i.e., phenotype), such as color, facial features, and hair texture. Whereas ethnicity refers to one’s social status based on their culture and family origins/history,” they wrote. Their recommenda­tions include that federal officials should clearly define the difference between race and ethnicity in census forms, as well as adding multidimen­sional measures — like a “separate question on perceived or street race.” They also argued that national origins shouldn’t be linked to race boxes because it “reinforces essentiali­sm and nativism by implying that race is representa­tive of nation.”

Those are all legitimate concerns that US government officials should address.

On the other hand, will there ever be a perfect race and ethnicity question? Is this one of those “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” policy situations? Many people who belong to other national origin groups feel that the changes will lead to less invisibili­ty for them, like the new “Middle Eastern or North African” category. And yet, some experts say that one is also problemati­c because it “is not inclusive enough of people who are of MENA descent and identify with Black diaspora communitie­s,” reported Wang of NPR.

As for my own clarity on the issue, as it turns out, I am 50 percent “Indigenous Americas, Mexico,” and 27 percent Spaniard, according to’s ethnicity analysis based on my DNA. Yet I still won’t feel confident checking the “Indigenous” box for my race in the next US Census, nor do I want to check white, either. And if I check both, as the form is expected to allow, would that land me in the multiracia­l category? I guess there aren’t good answers.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States