Millions Changed Their Race on the 2010 Census

New research shows that Hispanics, mixed-race Americans, American Indians and Pacific Islanders were among those most likely to have checked a different box since filling out the form a decade earlier.

2010 census forms
2010 census forms Alex Wong/Getty Images

Many Hispanics Don’t Claim a Race; Unusual Rise in Indians

Millions of Americans counted in the 2000 census changed their race or Hispanic-origin categories when they filled out their 2010 census forms, according to new research presented at the annual Population Association of America meeting last week,” D’Vera Cohn wrote Monday for the Pew Research Center. “Hispanics, Americans of mixed race, American Indians and Pacific Islanders were among those most likely to check different boxes from one census to the next.

“The researchers, who included university and government population scientists, analyzed census forms for 168 million Americans, and found that more than 10 million of them checked different race or Hispanic-origin boxes in the 2010 census than they had in the 2000 count. Smaller-scale studies have shown that people sometimes change the way they describe their race or Hispanic identity, but the new research is the first to use data from the census of all Americans to look at how these selections may vary on a wide scale.

” ‘Do Americans change their race? Yes, millions do,’ said study co-author Carolyn A. Liebler, a University of Minnesota sociologist who worked with Census Bureau researchers. ‘And this varies by group.’ “

Cohn also wrote, “The largest number of those who changed their race/ethnicity category were 2.5 million Americans who said they were Hispanic and ‘some other race’ in 2000, but a decade later, told the census they were Hispanic and white, preliminary data showed. Another 1.3 million people made the switch in the other direction. Other large groups of category-changers were more than a million Americans who switched from non-Hispanic white to Hispanic white, or the other way around.

“Hispanics account for most of the growing number and share of Americans who check ‘some other race’ on the census form. Many do not identify with a specific racial group or think of Hispanic as a race, even though it is an ethnicity in the federal statistical system. Census officials added new instructions on the 2010 census form stating that Hispanic ethnicity is not a race in an attempt to persuade people to choose a specific group. (That change, as well as other wording edits in the instructions to respondents between 2000 and 2010 may be one reason some people switched. The order of the questions and the offered categories did not change.) The Census Bureau is also testing a new race and Hispanic question that combines all the options in one place, rather than asking separately about race and Hispanic origin.

“More than 775,000 switched in one direction or the other between white and American Indian or only white, according to preliminary data. A separate paper presented at the conference reported ‘remarkable turnover’ from 2000 to 2010 among those describing themselves as American Indian. Ever since 1960, the number of American Indians has risen more rapidly than could be accounted for by births or immigration. . . .”

Asked what journalists should take away from this report, Cohn messaged Journal-isms:

“This is preliminary data, so it’s a heads-up to watch for more numbers—and a more complete narrative explanation—in the next few months.

These are numbers, but each one is about a person with a story to tell. So the data could be a jumping-off point for journalists to interview folks about how they identify, and why.