Argument: Census Bureau could better count Hispanics by focusing on origins

As I wrote about a month ago, the Census Bureau is looking into ways to better count Hispanics in the 2020 Census. Here are a few more details:

“Many Hispanics, especially those who are immigrants, are unsure about how to respond to census questions about race because the concept of race that we use in the U.S. is not so firmly entrenched in Latin American cultures,” said Shannon Monnat, a UNLV assistant professor of sociology who studies demography…

In April the Pew Research Center published a report from a survey that verified cramming everyone together into one category was problematic.

More than half of the Pew survey respondents said they preferred to use their country of origin as an identifier, 24 percent said they would use “Hispanic” most often and 21 percent labeled themselves “American.”…

“Historically, the standard sociological practice has been to apply ‘race’ to distinctions based on physical appearance and apply ‘ethnicity’ to distinctions based on culture and language, but ethnicity now is used increasingly as an inclusive term to categorize all groups considered to share a common descent,” Monnat said. “Demographers have been predicting a much wider range of responses on census forms and increased blurring of racial categories as minority populations continue to grow and interracial marriage increases over the next several decades. The children produced from these unions will not fit neatly into any of the standard census categories.

“A more realistic approach may be to use the concept of ‘origins’ rather than the traditional concepts of race and ethnicity,” she said.

Keeping up with changing definitions is a difficult task for sociologists and demographers. And this seems like a two-step process: first, we need to know how people understand or identify themselves and then we need to get the survey questions right.

Moving toward “origins” data would be interesting. The Census has some data on this – I think this is from questions about ancestry on the long form. Here is a two paragraph description of how this was done in 2000:

Ancestry refers to a person’s ethnic origin or descent, “roots,” or heritage, or the place of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States. Some ethnic identities, such as “German” or “Jamaican,” can be traced to geographic areas outside the United States, while other ethnicities such as “Pennsylvania Dutch” or “Cajun” evolved in the United States.

The intent of the ancestry question is not to measure the degree of attachment the respondent had to a particular ethnicity. For example, a response of “Irish” might reflect total involvement in an “Irish” community or only a memory of ancestors several generations removed from the individual. A person’s ancestry is not necessarily the same as his or her place of birth; i.e., not all people of German ancestry were born in Germany (in fact, most were not).

Ancestry has its own issues.

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