Hector Cordero-Guzman called my attention to a controversy over Hispanics changing their racial identities. Here is a quick rehash and a few comments. (Spoiler: the New York Times ran a bad story.)
At the Population Association of America, Carolyn Liebler, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, and James Noon, who works on administrative records at the Census Bureau, presented preliminary results from a comparison of individual race/ethnic responses to the 2000 and 2010 Decennial Censuses. After analyzing millions of individual Census responses, they reported in their abstract that 6% of people changed their race or Hispanic origin classification between 2000 and 2010.
Details of the analysis apparently are not publicly available, but D’Vera Cohn, a writer at the Pew Research Center, reported on their findings, under the headline, “Millions of Americans changed their racial or ethnic identity from one census to the next.” Is this a lot of change? It’s hard to say without a comparison (and without the analysis details). “Millions” does not really mean “a lot,” but it sounds like it does. If the Census race/ethnic identity questions don’t fit people’s self-concept very well then a certain amount of bouncing around is to be expected.
The focus was on Hispanics, whose place in the racial classification scheme is squishy (including immigrants who came at different ages from countries with different racial schemes and ancestral origins, living in different parts of the country with different racial attitudes, some concentrated in dense communities and some dispersed, some economically marginalized and some much more upwardly mobile, etc.). According to D’vera Cohn, 2.5 million Hispanics were “some other race” in 2000 and “white” in 2010, while 1.3 million were “white” in 2000 and “some other race” in 2010.
I might conclude from that that it’s messy and the categories don’t work very well. But it’s also possible that this reflects fluid identities, and people actually change how they see themselves in a systematic way over time. The PAA abstract says “responses and corresponding identities can change over time,” which leaves open the possibility that the change is in measurement in addition to identity, but the hypothesis they suggest are about identity (hypothesizing that women, young people, and people in the West have more complex or less stable identities).
Identity shift is how New York Times Upshot writer Nate Cohn interpreted the D’Vera Cohn report. Under the headline, “More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White,” he converted that bidirectional flow into “net 1.2 million” changing from “some other race” to “white,” and proceeded to run away with the implications. It’s a good example of using any number greater than zero to confirm something you already believe. For example, he wrote:
The data also call into question whether America is destined to become a so-called minority-majority nation, where whites represent a minority of the nation’s population. Those projections assume that Hispanics aren’t white, but if Hispanics ultimately identify as white Americans, then whites will remain the majority for the foreseeable future.
Hm. The “net” flow from “some other race” to “white” is 1.2 million. That is 3% of the 2000 Hispanic population, or 2% of the 2010 population. So even if it’s truly an identity change, does that save the White majority in the long run?
Anyway, as Cordero-Guzman points out in a detailed discussion, referring to a post by Manuel Pastor, the Census questions changed between 2000 and 2010, with Census adding, in bold, “For this census, Hispanic origins are not races” to the form in 2010. Since many Hispanics write “Hispanic” under “some other race,” this probably discouraged them from choosing “some other race” in 2010.
Cordero-Guzman also points out that the context in which the question is asked (and in which the respondents live) is important. For example, 82% of Puerto Ricans on the island use “white” on the American Community Survey, while in New York City only 45% do. Does their identity — in the sense of how they really think of themselves — change when they are in New York, or do they interpret the question differently because they are answering a question in a different social setting? You can’t quantify that difference, probably, but I wouldn’t assume it’s just an identity change.
In a follow-up post, Nate Cohn acknowledges the wording changes — “an important detail” — but returns to the assimilation-upward mobility story. He should have just acknowledged that he jumped to conclusions in the first post and overreached in the race to produce an important, “data-driven” post. (Nate Cohn may have consulted actual experts, but if he did he didn’t include them in the post. It’s just data, I guess.)
The information economy did it
There is a lesson here in the new information economy. Academic conferences used to be less in the public eye. A preliminary analysis, shared with other researchers, then a Pew writer posts on the results, and the Times splashes them all over, all before a paper is even available. I think the Times story is basically wrong — the data as reported are not independent evidence of “assimilation.” (So, the person with the biggest megaphone was the person who was most wrong — surprise!) But the analysis could well be an important piece of research in a larger literature, and I think it’s good to present preliminary research at conferences. You can’t stop reporters from racing to be wrong, but I do think it would be better to distribute the paper publicly when it’s presented.