How Census questions muddle race and ethnicity for Latinos

Sociologist Richard Alba explains how the Census does not accurately capture racial and ethnic change:

Sticking with the two-question format means that the great majority of young people with mixed Hispanic and white origins will be categorized only as Hispanic — and therefore as “nonwhite,” in census terminology. This classification will often contradict how they perceive and experience their identity, and how they’re treated by the world around them.

And it is sociological nonsense. A growing body of data reveals that individuals from mixed families look more like whites than they do like minorities — except for those who are partly black. The exception demonstrates, it should be emphasized, the persistent and severe racism that confronts Americans with visible African heritage.

 

And these measurements then affect projections for the future as well as political reactions:

And classifying those from mixed Hispanic and white families as “nonwhites” results in Census Bureau population projections of a majority-minority society by the mid-2040s. But such projections are grossly misleading because of the binary thinking that undergirds them and the misclassification of individuals who are partly white and partly minority…

In the 2016 presidential election, according to research Michael Tesler has reported here at The Monkey Cage, President Trump appears to have gained many votes from whites because of their anxiety about a rapidly changing society that would soon leave them as part of a minority.

At the least, we should keep in mind that racial and ethnic definitions can and do change over time due to a variety of factors: understandings within particular groups (self-understanding), understandings from other groups in society (pressures from the outside, particularly dominant groups), and how race and ethnicity are measured.

This could also raise questions about forecasts for the future of society – especially decades out. On one hand, we want to be able to prepare for changes and trends. On the other hand, demographic trends and shifts in behaviors and attitudes are not set in stone. Both researchers and leaders need to be flexible – or in terms of one of the current buzzwords, resilient  – enough to adapt.

Race, ethnicity, ancestry – and which one people identify with

I have followed an interesting urban sociology listserv discussion involving a recent New York Times editorial by Herbert Gans where he notes several mistakes the Census Bureau makes in measuring race and ethnicity. It strikes me that sociologists and others really want to measure three different things and then a fourth piece of information we could gather would help us better understand which three traits are more important. Here is what we might measure:

  1. Race. Largely based on skin color in the United States. A long history of black and white with groups in between.
  2. Ethnicity. Largely based on cultural or national groups. Has become more prominent in recent decades with the Census moving in 2000 to a separate question about Hispanic or Latino ethnicity or discussions about a Middle Eastern or Northern African background.
  3. Ancestry. This could align with the two categories but not necessarily. This typically refers a country or people group in a family lineage.
  4. In addition to the three pieces of information, shouldn’t we ask which category is most important to people? It is true that race in the United States has dominated social relations for centuries. At the same time, race on its own is simplistic. A few examples might suffice. A white Jewish person with ancestry in Russia. A non-white Brazilian with ancestry in Africa. A Chinese person from Singapore. A white person from Tennessee who says their ancestry is American (though it may be in Wales and Germany). Different people will see different traits as more essential to their own understanding as well as how they would like others to see them.

Of course, having four categories like this would complicate the study of trends and groups. But, as more people marry across groups and new groups continue to come to the United States, we need a more nuanced understanding of how these traits come together and matter to people.

“The most detailed map of the United States’ racial diversity”

Check out a new map that shows population by race and ethnicity at a very detailed level: SocScape. Curbed provides a brief description of the project:

Adapting a grid-charting system used for mapping the craters of Mars for NASA, Stepinski and his postdoctoral researcher Anna Dmowska, have created the most detailed map of the United States’ racial diversity—ever. The interactive tool displays enormous volumes of census information through more granular units, each representing 323 square feet. The result is a visual presentation that’s more accurate and useful to analysts interested in exploring geographic shifts in population and racial diversity.

Stepinski is already picking up on trends in the data from the 1990, 2000, and 2010 censes: Generally, white neighborhoods have become more diverse, Asian and Hispanic populations appear to be concentrating in distinct geographic pockets, while largely black neighborhoods have not increased in diversity.

Here is a view of much of the Chicago metropolitan region:

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SocScape, Chicago MSA, 2010 Census by race and ethnicity

From this image, it looks like an improved version of the racial dot maps as it has more geographic specificity. The tool also has some added data layers – here is the same region with the 1990 race and ethnicity data:

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SocScape, Chicago MSA, 1990 Census by race and ethnicity

Quite a bit of change over a twenty year stretch with increasing numbers of non-white residents living in the suburbs.

Push continues to add Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to Census

This project has been in the works for at least a few years and now the White House is joining the effort to add a Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to government forms:

Under current law, people from the Middle East are considered white, the legacy of century-old court rulings in which Syrian Americans argued that they should not be considered Asian — because that designation would deny them citizenship under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But scholars and community leaders say more and more people with their roots in the Middle East find themselves caught between white, black and Asian classifications that don’t fully reflect their identities…

On Friday, the White House Office of Management and Budget advanced the proposal with a notice in the Federal Register, seeking comments on whether to add Middle Eastern and North African as a separate racial or ethnic category, which groups would be included, and what it should be called.

Under the proposal, the new Middle East and North African designation — or MENA, as it’s called by population scholars — is broader in concept than Arab (an ethnicity) or Muslim (a religion). It would include anyone from a region of the world stretching from Morocco to Iran, and including Syrian and Coptic Christians, Israeli Jews and other religious minorities.

But the Census Bureau, which has been quietly studying the issue for two years, also has gotten caught up in debates about some groups — such as Turkish, Sudanese and Somali Americans — who aren’t included in that category. Those are issues the White House is trying to resolve before adding the box on 2020 census forms.

This is a good reminder of how social science categories can develop: through a lot of effort. There are social changes to account for here: how groups understand themselves changes over time. In this particular context, immigrating to the United States and facing particular challenges and opportunities leads to groups that wouldn’t necessarily group themselves together to now desire such a thing. Does the Middle East as Americans often understand it line up with how the region is understood elsewhere (let alone in that part of the world)? There are politics involved: who gets to define such groups? How is the data used? There are measurement issues: who would count in such a category? What are the boundaries? Is it a racial category or ethnicity? How many racial/ethnic categories are needed to understand the world?

All that said, the category of white – typically based on skin color – is very broad and often not very useful considering the social changes in the United States in the last few decades.

Examining neighborhood diversity and cohesion in England

A study published in European Sociology Review examines the effect of ethnic diversity on community cohesion:

A 17 year study of over 10,000 people found Britons felt less attached to their neighbourhood when communities become more multi-cultural.

Yet those who moved out to areas where they were surrounded by their own kind were happier, the Manchester University research found.

But the same was not true for Britons moving into already mixed places as relocating there had no harmful effect on how people viewed their surroundings or levels of happiness.

More explanation from the article abstract:

This article provides strong evidence that the effect of community diversity is likely causal, but that prior preferences for/against out-group neighbours may condition diversity’s impact. It also demonstrates that multiple causal processes are in operation at the individual-level, occurring among both stayers and movers, which collectively contribute to the emergence of average cross-sectional differences in attitudes between communities.

It sounds like the attitudes of those moving and staying are important. I would guess that younger residents – more used to diversity – are more open to diverse neighborhoods compared to their elders. Could the effect of moving – which was more positive either way – be related to residents feeling like they have options as opposed to having to stay where they are at? It is one thing to choose a neighborhood that fits your preferences as opposed to feeling like your community is changing without you being able to do anything about it.

This reminds me of Putnam’s study about neighborhood diversity:

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Given the historic salience of race and ethnicity – centuries both within England and the United States – finding consistently positive feelings about increasing neighborhood diversity may just take more time.

American cities that are no longer hypersegregated

Between 2000 and 2010, eleven American cities moved off the hypersegregation list as defined by sociologist Douglas Massey:

Cincinnati may offer a compelling example of what it takes to desegregate. It progressed enough toward desegregation from 2000-10 to fall off a list of “hypersegregated” cities. Princeton University sociologist Doug Massey, who released the list this year, uses five traditional measures of black-white segregation, and he considers areas that score highly on at least four of those measures to be hypersegregated.

Eleven other cities have fallen off Massey’s list since 2000: Atlanta; Buffalo, N.Y.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Indianapolis; Louisville, Ky.; Pittsburgh and York, Pa.; Springfield, Mass.; Toledo, Ohio; and Washington, D.C.

Metro areas that have made the least progress – still with high marks in all five segregation measures – are Birmingham, Ala.; Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit; Flint, Mich.; Milwaukee; and the St. Louis metro area, which includes Ferguson, where the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer last year sparked nationwide protests.

According to Massey, what works to decrease hypersegregation?

Other than zoning for affordable housing in the suburbs, segregation is less about policy and more about economic opportunity and “the degree of local racial prejudice,” Massey said.

May more cities have such success even as dealing with these two issues – providing more economic opportunity and limiting racial prejudice – are not easy tasks.

“The Myth of a White Minority”

Sociologist Richard Alba wrote a NYT op-ed in June about the fluidity of being white in the United States amidst a growing multiracial population:

But the forecast of an imminent white minority, which some take as a given, is wrong. We will seem like a majority-white society for much longer than is believed…

Some of the mixed children now classified as minorities surely will think of themselves mainly as whites when they grow up; researchers have already found a significant group of American adults who declare themselves as non-Hispanic whites to the census, but acknowledge having some Mexican ancestry. Others may have mixed or even minority identities, but will be “sociologically white,” integrated into white communities and family networks and seen as essentially no different from anyone else.

According to the new Pew report, adults from mixed white and Asian backgrounds feel they have more in common with whites than they do with Asians; almost half have friendship circles that are mostly made up of whites; and two-thirds live in mostly white neighborhoods. Two-thirds of the multiracial Americans in the report who have some white ancestry are themselves married to whites.

We can grasp these emerging social realities by remembering our history of assimilation. At midcentury, religious boundaries were highly salient in white America. Catholics, Jews and Protestants were distinct populations, whose social lives were largely confined within their own group. Yet in only a few decades, the differences faded, and interaction across the boundaries proliferated. It was not that people ceased being Catholic or Jewish. But the public faces of those identities became much more muted and rarely intruded on everyday life. The Jewish intermarriage rate, around 10 percent in 1950, climbed to 58 percent by 2013.

What racial and ethnic categories mean are not static. And if white continues to be a privileged status, some will want to identify with it among their options and other might not. And, of course, existing whites might contest these dynamic boundaries. For example, would southern whites accept as white a growing number of Latinos who have both Latino and white heritage?

This all makes measuring race and ethnicity more interesting moving forward. The Census Bureau is already thinking of changes for the 2020 decennial census.