Answers To Census' Race Question Changes Over Time

Census figures show the Hispanic population in the United States now accounts for more than half of the nation's growth in the past decade. But how to classify and measure Hispanics in the Census is complicated, since they are an ethnicity not a race. Ruben Rumbaut, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, talks to Steve Inskeep about the predicament.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And while the FDA is sifting through data about what we eat, another government agency is examining data about who we are. The Census Bureau announced recently that in the last decade more than half the growth in the American population came from Hispanics. The bureau has often had trouble classifying Latinos -being Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race.

These classifications frustrate Ruben Rumbaut, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine.

Professor RUBEN RUMBAUT (University of California at Irvine): Race is one of three questions that has been asked in every census since 1790. So for 220 years, that person's age, sex and race have been asked in a census. Age and sex have been measured in the same way for 220 years. Race has pretty much never been measured in the same way from one census to the next, suggesting this is not a biological given category but a social and legal and political construction whose meaning changes over time.

INSKEEP: So how are Hispanics identifying themselves differently over time when they wade into this thicket of boxes that they can check?

Mr. RUMBAUT: In the year 2000, persons that checked that they were Hispanic, when they answer the question on race, approximately 48 percent check white and another 43 percent check some other race. From census to census, there are slight changes in wording, in instructions, and that end up making a significant difference in the actual responses that people gave.

INSKEEP: These instructions for 2010 say, if I'm not mistaken, please answer both question eight about Hispanic origin and question nine about race, just emphasizing to people that Hispanic is not a racial designation and that you're supposed to do both.

Mr. RUMBAUT: Exactly. Already in the year 2010, there were four experiments embedded in the 2010 census looking ahead at how to make changes for the year 2020. One of the things that are being considered, for example, is trying to create a single question that combines both Hispanic ethnicity and race into a single question.

A colleague of mine and I since 1991 have directed the largest study of children of immigrants in the United States over time, looking at 77 different nationalities, including all of the ones from Latin America. And over time we have asked them separate questions about their ethnic identity and also a question about race. We also independently interviewed their parents.

Cuban parents, 93 percent of them, thought that they were white, but only 41 percent of their own children thought they were white; 69 percent of Nicaraguans, Salvadoran and Guatemalan parents thought they were white, but only 19 percent of their own children thought they were white.

INSKEEP: It's as if we were looking at a piece of machinery sitting on the floor and one day we say it's a car engine and the next day we say it's a boat engine and the third day we say it's a cotton gin, and it's all the same piece of machine - I mean we're reclassifying, continually renaming human beings, is basically what you're saying.

Mr. RUMBAUT: Absolutely. You're putting them in their place, so to speak, in hierarchies of status and privilege. Which is why since the 1970s I've been telling students in my classes in race and ethnic relations that my definition of race is that race is a pigment of our imagination.

INSKEEP: A pigment of our imagination.

Mr. RUMBAUT: A pigment of our imagination - that's my definition of race.

INSKEEP: So how do you check the box?

Mr. RUMBAUT: As soon as I get the census form, I go right to the race question and I check it for the whole family - I check other, other, other, other, and then if you check other you have to fill in the blank, so I just put human, which is the only race that I acknowledge.

INSKEEP: Well, Ruben Rumbaut, thanks very much.

Mr. RUMBAUT: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: He's at the University of California.

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