Results from America’s Churning Races: Race and Ethnic Response Changes Between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses

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Written by: Sonya Rastogi, Ph.D., Senior Researcher, Center for Administrative Records Research and Applications (CARRA); Carolyn Liebler, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota; Leticia Fernandez, Ph.D., Researcher, CARRA; James Noon, Researcher, CARRA; and Sharon Ennis, Researcher, CARRA

Racial and ethnic identities are consequential in shaping people’s lives and experiences. Often these concepts are viewed as immutable and lifelong. However, researchers have documented that individuals’ race and Hispanic origin responses on censuses and surveys can and do change.

Possible explanations for why respondents change these responses include new life experiences, shifting social forces, adjustments to questionnaire design, or a change in who within a household reports the race or Hispanic origin for household members.

In a new working paper, we document the amount and patterns of race and Hispanic origin response change using anonymized linked data of over 162 million people for whom we have responses from both the 2000 Census and 2010 Census.

We find that race and Hispanic origin responses changed for about 9.8 million people (or 6 percent). In the study, we estimate that about 8 percent would have changed their race or Hispanic origin between censuses if the study data were nationally representative.

We use the term “churning” to describe population turnover between census years — the number of people who left or joined a group relative to the number of people who stayed in the group. By using the linked data, we abstract from natural sources of churn such as births, deaths and migration and isolate churn due to response changes.  Notably, across most types of response changes, we found that the (sometimes sizable) number of people joining each race/Hispanic group was similar to the number of people leaving the same group.

The table below shows churning and stability among single-race groups and multiple-race groups, by Hispanic origin. Responses changed across all race and Hispanic origin groups, especially among American Indians and Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders, people who reported multiple races, and Hispanics who reported a race. Responses were generally stable among single-race non-Hispanic whites, blacks, and Asians.

Fluidity of Race Response Between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census by Hispanic Origin

In general, people consistently report whether they are Hispanic. However, race responses among Hispanics were not as stable as among non-Hispanics. The two most common response changes were changing from “Hispanic Some Other Race” to “Hispanic White” and changing from “Hispanic White” to “Hispanic Some Other Race.”

Most of the common response changes involved adding or subtracting a race or Hispanic response. Many common response changes involved movement between the majority group and a minority group. And a number of people changed from one single-race group to another.

We conclude that a racial or ethnic group does not necessarily include the same individuals over time even if cross-sectional data show small net changes. Researchers who use race and Hispanic-origin information will need to take into account the possibility of response changes when interpreting results.

Our paper is available at <https://www.census.gov/srd/carra/>.

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