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Census seeks changes in how it measures race

WASHINGTON — To keep pace with rapidly changing notions of race, the Census Bureau wants to make broad changes to its surveys that would end use of the term “Negro,” count Hispanics as a mutually exclusive group 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 race 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, some 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.