Census 2020: New Ways to Categorize Race & Ethnicity

October 11, 2023 by Chaya Merrill, DrPH

It’s been exciting to see the Census Bureau release data from the 2020 census, especially the recent reports on race and ethnicity. This did make me wonder though: did you know how to respond to questions on the census that asked precisely who you were from a race and ethnicity perspective? It may be trickier than it seems.

When it comes to counting people in the US, we use the decennial Census to count different categories of people. This is far from an easy feat. Being a big Census advocate, I can’t tell you the number of times my family, friends, and colleagues asked me what boxes they were supposed to check to answer “who are you” on the 2020 Census. I remember my colleague asking me if she was really “White” since she identified as Mexican and wouldn’t that make her “Brown”…my Lebanese friend was confused when there was no Middle Eastern race category. Note: The Census Bureau officially categorizes people with origins in Lebanon, Iran, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region as White. She was surprised as she would never describe herself as White. Given the recent sad events in the Middle East, I revisited this question of how we, in the United States, categorize people from Palestine and Israel – or, just broadly across the Middle East. Below are a few thoughts on what I learned, including information on some progress that the Bureau made in capturing race information in the 2020 census with a hint towards what may come in the 2030 census.

The Census Bureau is required to include five race categories: 1) White, 2) Black or African American, 3) American Indian or Alaska Native, 4) Asian and Native Hawaiian or 5) Other Pacific Islander. In preparing for the 2020 census, the Census Bureau (under the Obama administration) proposed including a new “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) category. This would include the countries, such as:  Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Palestine, and Yemen. But during the Trump administration (when the 2020 Census was actually conducted) the efforts to introduce a new MENA checkbox as part of the revised race and ethnicity questions stalled. This change required approval from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but the OMB did not offer a public decision and we were left without a MENA checkbox. That may all change in the 2030 census (discussed later in this post).

However, progress was made in the 2020 census in improving the collection of detailed race and ethnicity data, including MENA counts. One of the most noticeable improvements was the inclusion of “write-in areas” under the race options of “White” and “Black or African American.” The write-in option allows respondents to specify their race or ethnicity in their own words if they don’t see a category that accurately represents their identity on the provided list. As a result, detailed data are now available for 104 White groups (Dutch, Lebanese, etc.), 62 Black or African American groups (Congolese, Grenadian, etc.) and 22 Some Other Race groups (Brazilian, Belizean, etc.). Because of this write-in option the Census Bureau was able to release data for subgroups, including MENA, Caribbean, Sub-Saharan African, and more. In fact, last month new 2020 census data provided population counts of nearly 1,500 race and ethnicity groups and American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) tribes and villages. Below are a few findings that the Census Bureau just released:

  • Among Black or African American respondents, African American was the largest detailed group, with 22.1 million people reporting African American alone followed by Haitian, Jamaican, Nigerian, and Ethiopian.
  • The Mexican population (35.9 million) was the largest detailed Hispanic/Latino origin group in 2020. The next largest were Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Cuban and Dominican. The map below shows the largest Hispanic/Latino by state.

Maybe most people would guess that Mexican-Americans comprise the largest subgroup of Latino individuals living in most states. But, could you have guessed the composition of Asian residents:

  • Among Asian respondents, Asian Indian (4.4 million) was the largest detailed alone group. Chinese (5.2 million) was the largest detailed alone or in any combination group. See map below for the largest Asian groups by state – definitely more variation across the country.

I lost several hours playing with the interactive census maps. Have fun!

Circling back to how we count people of MENA origin. The Biden administration is proposing major changes to forms for the 2030 census that would transform how people of MENA descent are counted across the United States. The changes would include a new checkbox for “Middle Eastern or North African” when asking for a person’s race or ethnicity.  In addition, the change would no longer include people of MENA origins in the Bureau’s calculations of White people.

Stay informed on changes to the 2030 Census here.

Header photo from FatCamera from Getty Images Signature

About the author

Chaya Merrill, DrPH

Director of Child Health Data Lab within the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children's National Hospital