Why Heritage is wrong on the new Census race/ethnicity question

Sorry this is long and rambly. I just want to get the main points down and I’m in the middle of other things. I hope it helps.

Mike Gonzalez, a Bush-era speech writer with no background in demography (not that there’s anything wrong with that), now a PR person for the Heritage Foundation, has written a noxious and divisive op-ed in the Washington Post that spreads some completely wrong information about the U.S. Census Bureau’s attempts to improve data collection on race and ethnicity. It’s also a scary warning of what the far right politicization of the Census Bureau might mean for social science and democracy.

Gonzalez is upset that “the Obama administration is rushing to institute changes in racial classifications,” which include two major changes: combining the Hispanic/Latino Origin question with the Race question, and adding a new category, Middle Eastern or North African (MENA). Gonzalez (who, it must be noted, perhaps with some sympathy, recently wrote one of those useless books about how the Republican party can reach Hispanics, made instantly obsolete by Trump), says that what Obama has in mind “will only aggravate the volatile social frictions that created today’s poisonous political climate in the first place.” Yes, the “poisonous political climate” he is upset about (did I mention he works for the Heritage Foundation?) is the result of the way the government divides people by race and ethnicity. Not actually dividing them, of course (which is a real problem), but dividing them on Census forms. (I hadn’t heard this particular version of why Trump is Obama’s fault — who knew?)

How will the new reforms make the Trump situation he helped create worse? Basically, by measuring race and ethnicity, which Gonzalez would rather not do (as suggested by the title, “Think of America as one people? The census begs to differ,” which could have been written at any time in the past two centuries).

Specifically, Gonzalez claims, completely factually inaccurately, that Census would “eliminate a second question that lets [Hispanics] also choose their race.” By combining Hispanic origin and race into one question — on which, as before, people will be free to mark as many responses as they like — Gonzalez thinks Census would “effectively make ‘Hispanic’ their sole racial identifier.” He is upset that many Latinos will not identify themselves as “White” if they have the option of “Hispanic” on the same question, even if they are free to mark both (which he doesn’t mention). Some will, but that is not because anyone is taking away any of their choices.

The Census Bureau, of course, because they always do, because they are excellent, has done years of research on these questions, including all the major stakeholders in a long interactive process that is scrupulously documented and (for a government bureaucracy) quite transparent. Naturally not everyone is happy, but in the end the trained demographic professionals come down on the side of the best science.

Race that Latino

The most recent report on the research I found was a presentation by Nicholas Jones and Michael Bentley from the Census Bureau. This is my source for the research on the new question.

First, why combine Hispanic with race? You have probably seen the phrase “Hispanics may be of any race” on lots of reports that use Census or other government data. The figure below is from the first edition of my book, using 2010 data, in which I group all 50 million Hispanics, and show the races they chose: about half White, the rest other race or more than one race (usually White and other race). Notice that by this convention Hispanics are removed from the White group anyway, just because we don’t want to have people in the same picture twice (“non-Hispanic Whites” is already a common construction).


The “may be of any race” language is the awkward outcome of an approach that treats Hispanic as an “ethnicity” (actually a bunch of national origins, maybe a panethnicity), while White, Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian are treated as “races.” The distinction never really made sense. These things have been measured using self-identification for more than half a century, so we’re not talking about genetics and blood tests, we’re talking about how people identify themselves. And there just isn’t a major categorical difference between race and ethnicity for most people — people of any race or ethnicity may identify with a specific national origin (Italian, Pakistani, Mexican), as well as a “race” or panethnic identify such as Asian, or Latino. And now that the government allows people to select multiple races (since 2000), as well as answering the Hispanic question, there really is no good justification for keeping them separate. As you can see from my figure above, when we analyze the data we mostly pull all the Hispanics together regardless of their races. The new approach just encourages them to decide how they want that done, which is usually a better approach.

Of course, Asians and Pacific Islanders have been answering the “race” question with national origin prompts for several decades. There was no “Asian” checkbox in 2000 or 2010 (or on the American Community Survey). So they have been using their ethnicity to answer the race question all along — that’s because for some reason you just can’t get “Asian” immigrants, especially recent immigrants — that is, people from India, Korea, and Japan, Vietnam, and so on — to see themselves as part of one panethnic group. Go figure, must be the centuries of considering themselves separate peoples, even “races.” So, a new question that combines the more ethnic categories (Mexican, Pakistanis, etc.), with America’s racial identities (Black, White, etc.), just works better, as long as you let people check as many boxes as they want. This is what the “race” question looked like in 2014. Note there is no “Asian” checkbox:


As a general guide, the questionnaire scheme works best when (a) everyone has a category they like, and (b) few people choose “other.” That is the system that will yield the most scientifically useful data. It also will tend to match the way people interact socially, including how they discriminate against each other, burn crosses on each other’s lawns, and randomly attack each other in public. We want data that helps us understand all that.

Through extensive testing, it has become apparent that, when given a question that offers both race and Hispanic origin together, Latino respondents are much more likely to answer Hispanic/Latino only, rather than cluttering up the race question with “some other race” responses (often writing in “Hispanic” or “Latino” as their “other race”). If I read the presentation right, in round numbers, given the choice of answering the “race” question with “Hispanic,” in the test data about 70% chose Hispanic alone; about 20% chose White along with Hispanic, and 5% choose two races. In fact, the number of Latinos saying their only race is White probably won’t change much; the biggest difference is that you no longer have almost 40% of Latinos saying they are “some other race,” or choosing more than one race (usually White and Other) which usually just means they don’t see a race that fits them on the list.

In the end, the size of the major groups (Hispanics and the major races) are not changed much. Here’s the summary:


In fact, the only major group that will shrink is probably the non-group “multiracial” population, which today is dominated by Hispanics choosing White and “some other race.”

It’s really just better data. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not eliminating the White race or discouraging assimilation of Hispanics. In short, keep calm and collect better data. We can fight about all that other stuff, too.

I’m sure Gonzalez doesn’t really think this will “eliminate Hispanics’ racial choices.” He’s dog-whistling to people who think the government is trying to reduce the number of Whites by not letting Hispanics be White. His statements are factually incorrect and the Washington Post shouldn’t have printed them. (I don’t know how the Post does Op-Eds; when I wrote one for the NY Times it was pretty thoroughly fact-checked.)


The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are about 2 million MENAs in the U.S. now, about half of them immigrants. This is a pretty small population, mostly Arab-speaking immigrants and their descendants, and more Christian (relative to Muslim) than the countries they left. This is especially true of the more recent immigrants, which don’t include a lot of Iranians (who aren’t Arab).

Census could have instead defined them by linguistic origin (Arab), and captured most, but they instead are going with country of origin, which is consistent with how the other race/ethnic groups are identified (for better or worse). Their testing showed that this measure captures most people with MENA ancestry, encourages them to identify their ancestry, cuts down on them identifying as White, and cuts down on them using “some other race.”

The difference is dramatic for those identifying as White, which fell from 85% to 20% in the test once a MENA category was offered. Would it be better if they just identified as White? I’m really not trying to shrink the count of Whites, I just think this is more accurate. I don’t care about the biology of Whiteness and whether Iranians are part of it, for example (and don’t ever say “Caucasian,” please), I care about the experience and identity of the people we’re talking about — as well as the beliefs of the people who hate them and those who want to protect them from discrimination. Counting them seems better than shoehorning them into a category most of them avoid when given the chance.

Here’s one version of the proposed new combined question, from that Census presentation:



Why not Mike Gonzalez to run Census? Unbelievably, he probably knows more about it than Trump’s education and HUD department heads know about their new portfolios.

But that’s just one odious possibility. It makes me kind of sick to think of the possible idiots and fanatics Trump might put in charge of the Census Bureau, after all this work on research and testing, designed to get the best data we can out of a very messy and imperfect situation.

What else would they do? Will they continue to develop ways to identify and count same-sex couples? The Supreme Court says they can get married, but there is no law that says the Census Bureau has to count them. What about multilingual efforts to reach immigrant communities? This has been a focus of Census Bureau development as well. And so on.

It is absolutely in Trump’s interest, and the interests of those who he serves (not the people who voted for him), to reduce the quality and quantity of social science data the government produces and enables us to produce.

7 thoughts on “Why Heritage is wrong on the new Census race/ethnicity question

  1. Interesting that the conservative group goes this way. I think that mainstream media already does a pretty good job downplaying the proportion of whites in the country already by frequently reporting proportions of Whites as ~64% when they really mean non-Hispanic Whites.


    1. …this was educational though. I had always thought the current design with a separate question for Hispanics had been designed to increase the proportion of people responding Hispanic, which is why I was surprised to see a conservative group fight to keep the current design.


  2. It seems there will never be a non biased way for people to evaluate the way the census works. Man always seems to find a way to feel victimized and put down in one way or another. I doubt strongly, that there could ever be a way of collecting data on the racial make up of the population without one or more groups being outraged. Motivations are going to be challenged no matter what.

    At this point in our diverse, intermingled population, as well as tightened tension between perceived racial groups – just how should we collect our populations make up data? Is the entire matter obsolete? Perhaps citizenship alone is a better identifier. Just exactly what is the motivation for collecting this data? Civil rights and social justice are claimed as important reasons for knowing what our citizenship looks like – and financial and social aid are given as reasons for collecting the data. But all reasons seem suspect and in my humble opinion obsolete.

    If knowing where tax dollars need to be allocated – why not ask only those who desire aid? And at this point, what does someone’s racial background or socially identified group, have to do with whether they qualify for aid or assistance? And if civil rights is the issue, how about asking those who feel they have received unjust treatment, what their racial, ethnic, and cultural background is? If a white citizen feels they have been unjustlly treated by an institution or group – do they have cause for a fair hearing of their civil case? Or do only certain individuals have protection due to their “racial” designation. And if a person chooses a particular designation – exactly who has the authority to assign them that designation? This all seems like an outmoded tool.

    If a person of African-American decent chooses to associate with a Chinese social group due to adoption or other reason – would the census say he was Chinese? Or a Hispanic (Mexican) who chose to live in a Korean community – self identifying as a Korean – would that person be categorized as such? Or if a person is made up of 12 different genetically based groups – how and why should we bother trying to figure their designation out?

    I’m of the opinion that we’ve become so volatile concerning this issue – there just isn’t a way to word the census that will not offend someone if not everyone. There has long been a bias about being off one designation it another – a perception that being off one category is a profound advantage – and another a disadvantage – yet we certainly know that these assumptions fall apart in reality. And there seems to be a strange bias about being Hispanic or Latino. When and why were certain groups (particularly Hispanic) lumped together with white and why? And why is there a separate question about whether a person is Hispanic or Latino? Why is the Hispanic group delineated as a non racial group? That has admittedly confused me due to my ignorance about that particular issue.

    And why has the census been adamant that the categories are now social only – not anthropological or genetic? Since we all believe that there is no superior racial group (or should!) – what is the issue exactly? When are we going to get rid of predjudice? Just who is being so outraged about being in one group or another? As long as we continue to make such a big deal about the categories – nothing is going to change. Where exactly did the negative press come from concerning how the census collects it’s data? If the motive is truly about accurate collection of information, who is outraged? Is it the people within the groups, or someone with a political agenda? I don’t pretend to have a clear understanding of all the issues within each group. I have, however, lived within a culturally diverse community, where intermingling was emense. What was of most importance, was residency and citizenship – not race or heritage. I wish our country could get away from looking at each other based on race and see ourselves from the point of view of citizenship.

    I do believe in our country as a separate nation – made up of people from every race, heritage, and background – who pledge to come here or stay here, because they want to be a citizen of this country. Not because they want to live here – take advantage of our freedoms, protection, and resources – while maintaining allegiance to a different country and culture. A person can still pay homage to the culture of their ancestors, while pledging allegiance to their country of residence! I don’t care if you’re purple as long as you are in this land to promote the welfare of it and it’s people – not just take from it. If that person needs the aid this nation can give – apply for it and accept it as it is feeling given. Race shouldn’t matter. If the government needs to know your racial identification before giving aid – makes no sense to me. Seems the government can come up with more ways to spend our tax dollars than by forming committees to decide how to change the census, analyze the census, and research how and why it even matters – than using the tax dollars to actually help it’s needy citizens. That is what I find to be an outage!!!

    Personally, I’m not very fond of the government collecting all the personal information it does about it’s citizens. Any altruistic motives that may have existed are questionable if you ask me. But putting a political spin on it is of a questionable motive too. Saying a Republican had one motive for wording the census differently than a Democrat is hogwash! Of course different leaders are going to have a different approach – but assuming they have one motive or another is absurd. The census has been researching how to get more accurate results for decades. Interracial offspring and confusion as to how we are to self report, has made the entire matter so difficult as to be nearly impossible. Changes are perceived as affronts to every group and will never be perceived as fair to everyone. In my opinion, the only change that makes sense is to ask only about citizenship and residency.

    I wish we’d find a way to reduce the emphases on the census entirely. It would be a miracle a long time coming up we could reduce the size and scope of the government when it comes to social engineering. Predjudice and hate only increase as we continually try to figure out how to categorized our citizens. Finding a new way to fill out a form isn’t going to bring peace amongst us! Uniting us as one group by citizenship desiring to promote our common welfare won’t solve every problem – but it wouldn’t hurt.

    Call me a Pollyanna if you will – but if more of us don’t at least try to imagine less hated and division – it won’t happen for sure!!

    (I’m sure this had been a meandering group of thoughts, but it’s a topic that needs our attention – thanks for your post)


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s