A surprising number of people change their race and ethnicity from one Census to the next


(Via Flickr user Thomas Hawk)

On Census forms, the option to check a box for racial or ethnic identity presupposes that there's an unambiguous answer: white, black, American Indian, Hispanic, etc. But identity is a fluid thing. And, it turns out, about eight percent of us change our answers to the Census questions pictured at right from one decade to the next.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 11.33.10 AM

Researchers at the Census Bureau and the University of Minnesota have calculated this with the most comprehensive survey yet of our shifting sense of race and ethnicity, in a new working paper based on the matched responses of 162 million Americans captured in the 2000 and 2010 censuses (a preview of their findings circulated earlier this spring; here is the full paper).

The researchers, who had access to anonymized internal Census data, found that people have been reframing their identities in all kinds of ways: from a single race (say, "white") to another ("American Indian"); from one race ("American Indian") to more than one ("...and black"); from multiple races to a single one. Because the Census distinguishes between Hispanic origin (question 5 at right) and race (question 6), the data is also full of people who shed or added Hispanic ethnicity ("Hispanic white").

Within that dataset, 9.8 million people changed their ethnic or racial identity in some way between 2000 and 2010, or about 6 percent of the sample. That group wasn't nationally representative, though. Extended to the entire 2000 Census population, the researchers estimated that 8.3 percent of people changed their identity.

Among them, a few patterns stood out: White, black and Asian identities remained particularly stable across time. Changes were much more common among people identifying in either year as having Hispanic origin, or as American Indians, Alaska and Hawaiin natives and Pacific Islanders. Notably, people seemed to be moving in and out of many of these identities in comparable proportions:


Census Bureau

The researchers, led by Carolyn Liebler at the University of Minnesota, don't offer any sweeping conclusions for why our answers to this question might evolve over time, although there are a number of potential explanations. How people respond to this question sometimes depends on how it's asked. Children who were identified by their parents in 2000 might have grown up to answer the question differently in 2010. Over that decade, a person may learn about a new ancestor (say, a Cherokee great-grandmother), or perceptions about having such ancestry may change over time (maybe today, Cherokee great-grandmothers are coveted).

The context in which we find ourselves may also change how we think about who we are and where we fit in. A teenager who goes to college, for instance, may reconsider his or her identity in a more diverse population. Something similar no doubt happens as others immigrate to the United States. "New immigrants," Liebler and coauthors write, "sometimes undergo a transformation of their self-identified race as they come to understand, and perhaps accept, how the American public sees them."

In a technical sense, all of this means that we should be cautious with data about seemingly static racial groups over time. In a more philosophical sense, this also implies that identity has as much to do with social context as traits given to us at birth. From the researchers:

At a conceptual level, our results highlight an oft-stated (but rarely incorporated) declaration – race and ethnicity are complex, multifaceted constructs. Taking this idea seriously puts the results of our research in a different light. If social science evidence is correct, people are constantly experiencing and negotiating their racial and ethnic identities in interactions with people and institutions, and in personal, local, national, and historical context. These racial and ethnic identities are not always able to be fully translated to a census questionnaire fixed-category format. Perhaps it is not surprising that people change responses and instead it is surprising that so many are consistent in their race and Hispanic origin reports to the Census Bureau.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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