U.S. residents of Spanish origin typically have no trouble checking the box on their census form that asks whether they are Latino, Hispanic or Spanish.
It's a different question -- the one that asks their race -- that apparently gives some of them pause.
In the 2010 census, well over one-third -- perhaps unsure how to answer that question -- either checked "some other race" or skipped the question entirely.
Now, in advance of the 2020 count and as part of its ongoing effort to allow Americans to better reflect how they see themselves, the U.S. Census Bureau is researching ways to clear up the confusion by adding Latino or Hispanic to a list of government-defined race categories that includes White, Asian, Pacific Islander, Black and American Indian, along with a "two or more races" option.
The bureau is also considering an end to use of the term Negro, which is listed alongside black and African American on the form. And it's floating the idea of allowing people from the Middle East and North Africa, now counted as white, to write in their country of origin.
The question of race has long been a thorny one, and over the decades the categories for it on the once-a-decade census form have morphed and expanded.
While government definitions of race groups are set by the White House Office of Management and Budget, any changes to the census form ultimately must be approved by Congress.
Luis Fraga, a political-science professor at the University of Washington who directs its Diversity Research Institute, said, "identifying ourselves by racial grouping is at the very core of who we are as a nation and how we understand political power."
Results from the decennial survey not only help direct more than $400 billion in federal funds are distributed each year, but they also help evaluate how well government policies are responding to historical disparities among various racial and ethnic groups.
"As much as we hope we become a country where these racial distinctions don't matter -- and that's a worthy goal -- it is central to how we understand ourselves as a people and how we decide who has opportunity, rights, privileges and protection under the law," Fraga said.
The changes under consideration are based largely on an experiment in 2010, when nearly 500,000 households were given forms with the race and ethnicity questions worded differently from those that other households received.
The bureau found many people who filled out the traditional form didn't feel they fit within the five main race categories, while the alternative questionnaire, designed to address this concern, improved response rates and accuracy.
The Latino question
Of the possible changes, the one affecting Latinos -- who now number more than 50 million nationwide, including an estimated 755,790 in Washington state -- is likely to ignite the most debate.
Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race, which means although those in the population share a common language, culture and heritage, they can be of any race.
The census has had the separate ethnic question since the 1970s, asking respondents to indicate if they are Spanish, Hispanic or Latino and then giving them the option of noting their country of origin. It then prompts an answer to the question on race.
While in the 2010 census a majority chose white, some 18 million checked the catchall "some other race" category.
Under the proposed changes, the two questions would be combined, allowing respondents to check a single box.
While Latino advocates generally support the idea, it has been met with mixed reaction, with one concern being whether it could lead to a decline in the number of people who identify as Latinos.
"Latinos are the only group in the country with their own question on the census form," said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York City and a community adviser to the census. "The question that comes up right away is: Why would we give that up?"
He and others acknowledge there has been confusion, that large numbers of Latinos already consider their ethnicity a race.
Officials with El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, an advocacy organization that helps educate Latinos about the importance of the census, will be closely watching how the conversation unfolds.
"We want to make sure that everybody is counted and at the same time everyone has the opportunity to self-identify," said Enrique Gonzalez, a policy advocate for the group. "Those two concerns have to be balanced."
For Middle Easterners, the concern isn't so much about preserving an identity as it is establishing one.
More than one-third of all Middle Easterners are Muslim, and among them there appears no real consensus about providing specific identifying information to the government, given a strained relationship with federal law enforcement.
While some worry the information could be used to target them, they also recognize the need for useful demographic data.
In the early 1900s, to get around entry quotas and achieve greater opportunities, Arabs lobbied to be classified as white, defined as the original people of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
"Now it's kind of the opposite," said Samer Araabi, head of governmental relations with the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., which promotes the concerns of Arabs and is a partner with the Census Bureau. "The community wants an identity for itself, to be counted as a unique group separate from whites."
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Arab American Community Coalition, conducted a survey to gauge how people felt about a separate identity for Middle Easterners on census forms.
Feelings at the time were still raw, and people were fearful of how the government would use the data, recalls Rita Zawaideh, who runs a travel agency called Caravan-Serai in Seattle that provides travel tours to parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
Years later, it came up again.
"There was a feeling we needed to have a voice," she said. "We weren't known as Americans. The politicians weren't courting us. We weren't being counted as a group."
But now, with a rise in cases of racial profiling, "we're back to square one," she said.
Zawaideh said she usually completes her census form by checking "some other race" and then writing in "Arab." She'd prefer to see a separate race category for Middle Easterners and North Africans, not just a write-in option, she said.
Seattle Times Staff Researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.
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