WASHINGTON - To keep pace with rapidly changing notions of race, the Census Bureau wants to make broad changes to its surveys that would treat "Hispanic" as a distinct category regardless of race, end use of the term "Negro" and offer new ways to identify Middle Easterners.
The recommendations released Wednesday stem from new government research on the best ways to count the nation's demographic groups. Still it could face stiff resistance from some racial and ethnic groups who worry that any kind of wording change in the high-stakes government count could yield a lower tally for them.
"This is a hot-button issue," said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino policy in New York City and a community adviser to the census. "The burden will be on the Census Bureau to come up with evidence that wording changes will not undermine the Latino numbers."
The research is based on an experiment conducted during the 2010 census in which nearly 500,000 households were given forms with the race and ethnicity questions worded differently. The findings show that many people who filled out the traditional form did not feel they fit within the five government-defined categories of race: white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native; when questions were altered to address this concern, response rates and accuracy improved notably.
For instance, because Hispanic is currently defined as an ethnicity and not a race, about 18 million Latinos - or roughly 37 percent - used the "some other race" category on their census forms to establish a Hispanic racial identity. Under one proposed change to the census forms, a new question would simply ask a person's race or origin, allowing them to check a single box next to choices including black, white, or Hispanic.
The other changes would drop use of "Negro," leaving a choice of "black" or African American, as well as add write-in categories that would allow Middle Easterners and Arabs to specifically identify themselves.
Census director Robert Groves, who leaves his position Friday to become provost at Georgetown University, described the research findings as an important first step toward making changes in future censuses.
"As new immigrant groups came to this country decade after decade, how we measure ethnicity changed to reflect the changing composition of the country," Groves said. "Since that change is never ending and America gets more and more diverse, how we understand and tabulate the information has to be continually open to change."
"It's critical that race and ethnicity reflect how people identify themselves," he said.
The issue isn't just semantic. Some African Americans in 2010, for instance, criticized a question asking if a person was "black, African-American or Negro," saying the government's continued use of the term "Negro" was demeaning and offensive.
The wording in census surveys can be highly political: Census data are used to distribute more than $400 billion in federal aid and draw political districts and thus can elicit concern if a change were to yield a lower response.