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The 2020 Census: Race and Ethnicity in the United States

Image Courtesy of United States Census Bureau

By Anna Sheehan

Every ten years, citizens across the United States of America fill out a survey. And it’s not a survey that tells food corporations the most popular ice cream flavor. This survey informs the U.S. government, and subsequently the general public, of the country’s population count and demographics. It is called the census.

In addition to collecting various statistics about the U.S. population’s ages, household sizes, and more, the 2020 census gleaned some noteworthy facts about race and ethnicity in our country. The race and ethnicity section drew particular attention this year for two reasons: the results themselves and changes to the race and ethnicity questions.

The U.S. Census Bureau released the first compilation of census results on August 12. These results made America appear much more diverse than it did on the last census in 2010. The multiracial population appears to have increased by 276%. America’s population of Hispanic or Latino people increased by 23%, while non-Hispanic or Latino groups increased by 4.3%. Further comparisons between 2020 and 2010 census data on race and ethnicity in the United States can be found here. Links to further 2020 census data can be found here, and the Census Bureau expects to release full 2020 results by the end of September.

In an article on August 3, the Census Bureau’s Rachel Marks, Chief of the Population Division of the Racial Statistics Branch, and Merarys Rios-Vargas, Chief of the Population Division of the Ethnicity and Ancestry Branch, explained improvements made to the census. 

“We expect the data will reflect not just changes in the population, but also the improvements in how we asked the questions and captured and coded the responses,” said Marks and Rios-Vargas in anticipation of these changes. 

As a result of certain edits, the census collected more accurate results. Additionally, the 2020 census was offered in twice as many languages as the 2010 census, allowing more access, particularly to non-native residents, which likely caused more diverse results.

Every year, census respondents check off a box for the race or races of each member of their household as well as mark if each person has any Hispanic or Latino background. Additionally, previous censi asked respondents who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native to write their “enrolled or principal tribes.” People with Asian or Pacific Islander heritage outside of the options listed wrote in their countries of origin.

On the 2020 census, all respondents had to write in their nation of origin regardless of race. For example, anyone who checked off “White” had to write in the country or countries from which they had ancestry.

Not only did the 2020 questions allow respondents to give more detailed answers, the Census Bureau also changed how they processed the results. In previous years, the Census Bureau accepted written responses of up to 30 characters. If a person wrote, for the question about Hispanic or Latino origin, “Puerto Rican and Guatemalan and Mexican,” the answer that was actually codified would have been “Puerto Rican and Guatemalan an.” With the new 2020 coding, the full answer would have been accepted, allowing for more comprehensive results.

There was, however, a process to make a more precise and thorough census. The Census Bureau conducted multiple discussions and surveys between 2010 and the printing of the 2020 census to decide on the improvements. The 2015 National Content Test tested the new coding for the race and ethnicity questions. In addition to the changes which appeared on the 2020 census, further changes were suggested throughout the discussions of the last 10 years.

One discussion arose on including a question about Middle Eastern and/or North African ancestry. Many people of MENA ethnic background do not identify as White and end up using the “Some Other Race” box to describe their background. Currently, the census is crafted according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget 1997 standards; thus, adding a whole other category of race or ethnicity is not allowed without also changing those standards. However, this discussion has been started, and perhaps in another 10 years, the census will yet again look different than it ever has before.

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