The 2020 census count will be shrouded by doubt about race and ethnicity

The Trump administration took a pass on research that showed there was a better way to ask about race and origin.

SHARE The 2020 census count will be shrouded by doubt about race and ethnicity
2020 census, race and origin, immigrants, Latinos, Middle East, North Africa

The 2020 census has two questions regarding race and origin. Ten years ago, millions left the question about race blank.

Paul Sancya/AP

The 2020 U.S. Census form makes Julie Dowling cry.

Dowling has a Ph.D. in sociology. She teaches at the University of Illinois and has spent years researching how the race and Hispanic origin questions on the census are understood by Latinos.

Six years ago Dowling published a book, “Mexican Americans and the Question of Race,” that gets to the heart of confusing race and origin questions on the census. For more than a decade, she worked with other sociologists, demographers and statisticians to find a better way to ask about race and ethnicity.

These professionals strive for accuracy and a high response rate on the census the way quarterback Tom Brady aims for touchdown passes. It is their life’s work.

Working with the U.S. Census Bureau, they came up with a single streamlined question on race and ethnicity to help people be more precise about their racial makeup. It allowed people to pick between white; Hispanic, Latino or Spanish; Black or African American; Asian; American Indian or Alaska Native; Middle Eastern or North African; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; or some other race, ethnicity or origin.

Better still, underneath each category, people could pick or fill in a specific country of origin, whether it was Germany, Mexico, China or Egypt.

Julie Dowling, census, Latinos

Julie A. Dowling is an associate professor in the Department of Latina/Latino Studies and affiliate faculty in the Departments of Sociology and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

University of Illinois website

“It was the format we all wanted,” Dowling told me. It had a strong response rate in experimental surveys that started going out in 2010.

Some Latino groups initially expressed reluctance about the streamlined question because it meant giving up a stand-alone census question for Hispanic/Latino origin that civil rights groups fought for decades ago.

“We needed to be convinced that a streamlined question would be better,” Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Educational Fund, told me. “It was a major leap of faith, but we took it when we saw the research. It was terrific work.”

But to change the census form, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget had to be on board. Under President Donald Trump, the OMB took a pass.

That leaves the 2020 census form badly flawed. It has two separate questions regarding race, same as in 2010. One asks if you are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin. The other asks about race as well as origin.

When they get to the second question, “many Latinos are thinking, ‘I just told you my race,’ ” Vargas said.

That thought has crossed my mind when I have completed the census. It’s confusing.

And “anything that makes the form harder to fill out will bring more non-responses,” Dowling told me.

In 2010, the census question about race was left blank by more than 13 million people, mostly Hispanics, U.S. Census Bureau officials told me six years ago. They said a 2010 experimental survey with a streamlined question had a non-response of about 1%, which is pretty darn good.

In the end, we’re left with a substandard form that will make America look whiter than it truly is.

Middle Eastern and North African origins aren’t included at all on the 2020 form. People from those regions can check “white” or “some other race” and write in their country of origin but many won’t. It will be easier for those people to skip the question or the census form in its entirety.

Some won’t reveal their ethnicities out of fear the Trump administration will target immigrants for deportation or impose other discriminatory practices. The Muslim ban, for one, understandably fuels fears.

“People don’t feel safe saying their race,” Othman Al Ani of the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance in Chicago told me.

Adding insult to injury, the Trump administration pushed to include a citizenship question on the census short form, a fight the president lost at the Supreme Court. That effort still had a lasting effect on many immigrants who believe Trump doesn’t want them in this country. Some want nothing to do with the census.

“There’s so much to grieve,” Dowling said.

All of this means the census won’t give an accurate depiction of America’s rich diversity. It will have profound consequences for our democracy.Congressional representation and federal funding will be inadequate in many places. The census can be used to help identify and correct inequities and discrimination of cultural groups. Latinos and people from the Middle East and North Africa will be short-changed there.

Researchers are hopeful that a different presidential administration will approve a streamlined question for the next census in 2030.

This year’s count will be heavily clouded by doubt.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

The Latest
The Sept. 12 Emmy ceremony will air live on NBC and be carried on its streaming sibling Peacock.
Anthony M. Strozier, 31, was caught on surveillance video using bolt cutters to snip the lock of an antique glass case and making off with four watches, court records show.
Instead of banding together when the bloodshed starts, narcissistic millennials and Gen Z-ers start backstabbing one another in devilishly funny slasher satire.
The four-part docuseries tenders a comprehensive overview of how the Rolling Stones became THE ROLLING STONES.
Anderson returned to Chicago Sunday to have hand examined