The US Census Bureau keeps confusing race and ethnicity

Nancy Lopez, Director, Institute for the Study of "Race" & Social Justice; Associate Professor, Sociology, University of New Mexico

If you were walking down the street, what race would strangers automatically assume you were?

“Street race” – what race you look like, based on your skin color, facial features and more – is an important aspect of a person’s experiences. For example, research shows that a person who’s Hispanic but perceived as light-skinned does not experience the same level of discrimination as a Hispanic person who’s seen as darker-skinned.

However, the U.S. census does not clearly capture these differences. In past surveys – and in the upcoming 2020 census – the Census Bureau boils complex information on race, ethnicity and ancestry into just two questions: “Are you of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?” and “What is your race?”

As a sociologist who specializes in research on social inequalities, I believe this way of capturing race and ethnicity undermines the country’s ability to serve vulnerable communities. Without reliable data, it’s difficult to track whether Americans of different colors and backgrounds receive equitable opportunities in housing, voting, employment or education.