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New write-in option for ethnicity question tested for 2020 Census

Catherine McGloin

The U.S. Census Bureau has changed how they plan to ask respondents about race and ethnicity in the 2020 census.

Besides ticking the “Black or African American” check box, when respondents receive the decennial census in April next year there’ll be an additional space for them to write in the non-Hispanic racial origin they identify with. The survey currently being tested by the bureau suggests examples such as Jamaican, Haitian and Nigerian.

The bureau has been testing this new two-step format since the 2010 census in the hope that, according to bureau officials, they will be able to collect more detailed, disaggregated data on the nation’s diverse population.

For those born in the countries they identify racially with, answering this question should be simple. But for the millions of African Americans born in the U.S. who trace their ancestry back to slavery, or who have more than one ethnic identity — there is only one line for one entry — this could be problematic.

According to predictions made by the Census Bureau in 2015, the 2020 census will come at a time when more than half of the country’s children belong to an ethnic minority group. They also forecasted three years ago that no single racial group in the U.S. would be larger in number than any another by 2044.

Having to provide additional information means that some black Bostonians may be digging deep into their family history. According to the Census Bureau’s latest figures from July 2017, of the city’s 685,094 residents, 25 percent are African American, almost 5 percent identify with two or more races, and 28 percent are foreign-born.

Rather than labeling all black people African Americans, collecting more information on the specific ethnic makeup of the country’s population could help paint a more nuanced picture of the nation’s cultural and racial character. This is something Jose Barros, a Cape Verdean community organizer with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative but a long-time resident of the U.S., is pleased about.

“I welcome this change,” said Barros. “We identify ourselves as African American, but having the opportunity to express also that we are Cape Verdean is really great.”

While Barros sees no complications for him and his family in answering the newly formatted race question, question number 9 on the 2020 census, this question may not be so straightforward for everyone.

Those born in the U.S. but with a long line of American ancestors leading back to the days of slavery may struggle to locate the country of their ethnic origin. Similarly, identifying with more than one non-Hispanic ethnicity could leave you short for space, with just 16 characters allowed for each race-category response on the test questionnaire.

Joao Rosa, executive director at Bridgewater State University’s Pedro Pires Institute for Cape Verdean Studies, said that “the degree of affiliation matters” when it comes to noting which ethnicity a respondent feels most connected with.

“The issue of identity is always fluid and multi-dimensional,” Rosa said, “… but ultimately you want to provide the space for people to identify themselves,” despite the complexities this decision invites.

Solving family tree mysteries aside, there are also concerns that respondents will simply skip the question altogether for fear that their private information will be shared with other government agencies.

As concerns about the inclusion of the citizenship question — a multi-choice question which asks respondents if they are citizens, not if they are in the country legally — continue to grow, they fuel the public’s growing distrust about how their data might be released to other agencies and used against them.

While Rosa told the Banner he believes giving people the option to identify themselves in greater detail is a good thing, he is worried that the citizenship question will overshadow any benefit this new option may provide.

“The community may not be as responsive [to the census] because of the citizenship question,” he said. “Communities, particularly minority communities, are apprehensive about providing information to the government,” he said, adding that the current social climate, with families forcibly separated and deported without notice, appears to be reinforcing their collective anxiety.

The bureau released a report at the end of October that seems to suggest this growing unease among all communities, not just communities of color. The “Census Barriers, Attitudes and Motivations Study,” conducted by the bureau, surveyed 17,500 respondents between February and April this year, and found that almost 25 percent of the U.S. population are either “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about their 2020 census answers will be shared with government agencies. Fifty-nine percent said they did not trust the federal government.

If respondents are distrustful of the ways the Census Bureau will transmit and share their information, particularly on personal subjects such as immigration status and race, and they choose to not answer the questionnaire fully, this could lead to an undercount of U.S. residents in each racial group.

An undercount could affect the allocation of federal funds, $675 billion that is distributed annually across the nation to fund services like education, health and housing, based on population data presented in the latest census. If some groups are underrepresented in the data collected in the 2020 census, then their communities may not receive adequate funding for vital social services.

Rosa highlighted the importance of making sure each ethnic group was accurately counted. He said different communities have specific requirements that can only be provided for if it is known how many are affected and where they are located.

To mitigate a potential undercount, the bureau has been improving its operational plans. Its efforts in translation, accessibility and distribution have meant that among the country’s Latino population, the number of people missing from the data fell from 5 percent to 1.5 percent.

The 2020 census is also the first to be internet-driven, which it is hoped will increase the likelihood of participation.

African Americans are not the only racial group to get the chance to specify their ethnicity on the 2020 census; whites will also be prompted to write in their ethnic identity — for example, Irish, Lebanese or Italian. Another change to the census includes the removal of the term “negro” from the document.

The Census Bureau did not respond by press time to the Banner’s request for comment.

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