Tag Archives: hispanic

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.


Filed under In the news

Quick correction on that 90-percent-of-faculty-are-White thing

The other day I saw a number of anti-racist people tweeting that “nearly 90% of full-time professors are White.” As I have previously complained when 90% of the full professors at my then-school (UNC) were White, I was interested to follow up. Unfortunately, that popular tweet turns out to be a stretched description of a simple error.

The facts are in this Education Department report from May, which was reported at the time by The Ed Advocate, and suddenly started going around the other day for unknown reasons. The “nearly 90%” is the Ed Advocate’s description of 84%, which is the percentage White among full-time full professors, which the original report in one place accidentally describes as just full-time professors. Among all full-time instructional faculty, in fact, 79% are White. So the headline, “Study: Nearly 90 Percent of Full-time Professors Are White,” was a conflation of two errors. It presumably became popular because it put a number to a real problem lots of people are aware of and looking for ways to highlight.

Here is the original chart:


The problem of White over-representation among college faculty is not that apparent in this national 79% statistic. Consider, for example, that among all full-time, full-year workers age 40 and older (my made-up benchmark), 71% are non-Hispanic White. Among those with a Masters degree or higher, 77% are White. So faculty, nationally and at all levels, don’t look that different from the pool from which they’re drawn.

The 84% full professor statistic reflects the greater White representation as you move up the academic hierarchy. And that’s not just a question of waiting for younger cohorts with more non-White faculty to age into the professoriate. Because the pipeline isn’t working that well, especially for Black faculty. Which brings me back to my old UNC complaint, which focused mostly on Back under-representation. In 2010 I noted that the North Carolina population was 22% Black, while the UNC faculty was 4.7% Black. But full professors at UNC were just 2.4% Black, while the assistant professors were 7.5% Black. Is that the pipeline working? Well, only 4.5% of the recent faculty hires were Black.

I went back to check on things. As of the 2014 report (they’re all here), the update is that UNC has stopped reporting the numbers by rank, so now all they say is that 5.2% of all faculty are Black, and they don’t report the makeup of recent hires. So take from that what you will.

And what about further up the pipeline? I previously shared numbers showing a drop in Black representation among entering freshmen at the University of Michigan, from 10% to 5% over the 2000s. The trend at UNC is in the same direction:

unc black studentsOf course we always need to be cautious about numbers that support what we already know or believe. Some people will respond to this by saying, “but the point remains.” Right, but if the number is irrelevant to the point, there’s no need to use the number. Plenty of people can say, “In all my undergraduate years, I never had a Black professor,” or some other highly relevant observation.*

On the other hand, others of us need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that progress on under-representation is just happening out there because everyone thinks it should and it’s just a matter of time. That common assumption allows defensive administrators to do write thinks like this caption (from UNC’s 2011-2012 report):


This is misleading: There was a big increase in Hispanic students (North Carolina has a growing Hispanic population) and Asian students, and marked drops in Black and American Indian students. But “overall, steady increase” is an easy narrative to sell.

If they scaled that chart from 0 to 12 and dropped Whites, “overall, steady increase” would look like this:


* I think I had three great Black professors at Michigan: Walter Allen, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Cecilia Green, each of whom changed my life forever. Sorry if I’m forgetting someone.

Related posts:


Filed under In the news

Immigrant health paradox update

I wrote a few years ago about the surprisingly low infant mortality rates among immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants, given their relative socioeconomic status. As poor as they other, in other words, we would expect higher infant mortality rates than they have. This has been called the epidemiological paradox. Here is an update, which includes some text from the previous post.

In almost every race/ethnic group, immigrants are healthier.* Here’s the pattern for infant mortality, now updated with 2010 infant mortality rates from federal vital statistics records (click to enlarge).


For Latinos in particular, their health is surprisingly good given their economic conditions. Robert Hummer and colleagues, in a 2007 article, offered a succinct description:

…the relatively low levels of education, income, and health insurance coverage among Hispanics compared with non-Hispanic whites is thought to place the former at higher risk for negative health outcomes. However, it is well documented that some Hispanic groups exhibit similar observed death rates compared with the non-Hispanic white population and much lower death rates than the non-Hispanic black population, whom they closely resemble with respect to socioeconomic characteristics. The greatest enigma is exhibited by the Mexican-origin population of the United States. This Hispanic subgroup is characterized by low educational attainment; low health insurance coverage rates; mortality rates similar to non-Hispanic whites; and much more favorable mortality rates than those of non-Hispanic blacks across most of the life course.

In a 2013 revisiting of the paradox, Daniel Powers confirms the basic pattern, but adds an important wrinkle for Mexican mothers: the foreign-born advantage disappears for older mothers. Thus, children born to older Mexican immigrants have similar risks as those who mothers are born in the U.S. He concludes, in part:

Given the association between infant survival and maternal health, differential infant survival within the Mexican-origin population suggests that longer exposure to social conditions in the U.S. undermines the health of mothers who, in general, seem to have more favorable health endowments than their non-Hispanic white counterparts as evidenced by the relatively lower rates of infant mortality at younger ages.

Immigrants are often healthier than the average people in the countries they came from, which explains some of the paradox. However, our ability to accurately assess the relative health of immigrants versus the populations they left behind is limited by available data. Further, in the case of Mexico, the situation is complicated by cyclical movements of immigration and emigration. In a recent paper, Georgiana Bostean reviews this problem, and compares the health of immigrants, non-migrants, and return migrants to Mexico. And — It’s complicated. She concludes:

…there is no simple explanation for Latinos’ perplexing health outcomes, such as simply that healthier people migrate. Rather, migrants are positively selected in some health aspects, negatively selected in others, and in yet other health outcomes, there is no selection effect. In sum, selective migration plays a role in explaining some of U.S. Latinos’ health outcomes, but is not the only explanation and does not account for the Paradox.

These articles are a good place to start on this topic: lots of references to fill in the background and previous research on this paradox, which goes back at least to the 1980s. This is a fascinating and important research area, dealing with such questions as health behaviorintergenerational change, thorny puzzles about different immigrant groups, child development and lots more.

*Because Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. (albeit not a free part), people born in Puerto Rico who move to the states are not immigrants, just migrants. In the figure I used the terms “US Born” and “Foreign born,” but this is just shorthand, and not strictly accurate for Puerto Ricans.


Filed under Uncategorized

Changing Hispanic racial identity, or not

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.


Filed under Uncategorized