Thursday, May 24, 2012

More census data....the minority-majority issue

I was happy to see that my post from yesterday  got an excellent comment from Glenn, a former Census Bureau employee.  He let me know that it was likely the sample they used was actually a stratified cluster sample, which is not exactly what I had surmised, but close.

As I was looking up more info on some of the Census Bureau data, I ran in to a fascinating column from Matthew Yglesias over at  In it, he describes his experience filling out the census form, and how his own experience made him question some of the data being released.

In specific, he questioned the recent headline that we are quickly heading towards a minority-majority society.  He mentions that as a 25% Cuban man, he looks very white, but was not sure how to answer the question regarding whether he was "Hispanic in origin".  If he wasn't sure how to answer a race question, how many others were in his boat?  He further comments that as people continue to become increasingly of mixed racial background (keeping in mind that 1 out of 12 marriages is now mixed race) it is much more likely that we will have to shift our concept of what "white" is to keep up with the times.

As Elizabeth Warren can tell you, percentage of heritage matters....but where do we draw the line?  If 3% Native American isn't enough, how much is?  I mean that quite literally.  I don't know.

In my cultural competency class in school, we had a fascinating example of racial confusion.  One of the girls I sat next too mentioned that her grandparents were from Lebanon, had immigrated to South America, her parents were both born there, married, moved to the US, and that's where she was born.  Her skin was fair, she was fluent in Spanish, and she felt she spent her life explaining that she was genetically Arabic, ethnically South American and culturally American.  I don't know what she checked off on the census, but I'm sure nothing captured that particular combination accurately.

As times change, so do our ideas of race. When reading the history of census racial classification, it's hard to disagree with Yglesias' assertion that today's racial breakdown will not be comparable to whatever breakdown we have in ten years.  That's a good thing to keep in mind when analyzing racial data.

 Racial numbers are as good as the categories we have to put them in.   


  1. In this country we have always kept track of who is black or native. We called everyone else white. The idea that we had lots of divided categories in earlier times is more false than true. There was even debate whether Chinese people coming to work on the railroads should be considered white. They weren't black or Indian, so what else could they be? There was certainly no objection to Arabs, Jews, and what we would now call Hispanics being thought white. That's why black barnstorming baseball teams often named themselves Cubans - because Cubans were considered essentially white even if they were very dark indeed.

    We forget that our very near ancestors were ethnically very conscious, so that there were lots of other white people they might have disliked, but white was a large category.

  2. Hello Again bs king!,

    I'm glad you found my comment from yesterday interesting. Not a lot of people like this stuff.

    The race and ethnicity questions are probably the most confusing ones that any statistical agency has to deal with. The definitions are set by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) so they are standardized for all government agencies.

    At one time all professionals at the Census Bureau had to go through a six week training program where they designed a survey, worked up a questionnaire, administered the questionnaire, and analyzed the results. When I went through the training they made it very clear that the respondent was to self identify. If they identified themselves as "Martian" then that is what we were to write down without questioning it.

    Also, the purpose of the ethnicity question is to determine if a person is Hispanic and is completely unrelated to the race question. In the Census Bureau document Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010 this is the definition of Hispanic or Latino origin used for ethnicity:

    “Hispanic or Latino” refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.

    Confusing? Yes. Please keep in mind that the purpose of these categories isn't always statistical but political. Politics makes for strange statistics at times.


    1. Two things:
      1. I always love this stuff. I find the different ways of collecting data totally fascinating.

      2. "Politics Makes for Strange Statistics" sounds like a great interdisciplinary class for stats and poli sci majors.

      Thanks again for all the info!