April 1, 2010— -- In the increasingly well-mixed melting pot that is the United States, listing race and ethnicity on a multiple-choice form is not easy, and to some, the exercise is downright offensive. Hispanics, African-Americans, biracial Americans and others have criticized the 2010 census form questions for failing to document race in an effective and sensitive manner.
The Census Bureau says it has been asking Americans about race since 1790, saying in an explanation on its Web site that the question is "key to implementing many federal laws" and essential "to assess fairness of employment practices."
Attempting to include all blacks in the nation, the Census Bureau went so far as to include the description "Negro" on this year's form, but one question may have excluded the largest ethnic minority in the U.S. -- Latinos.
The eighth question on the form asks whether one is "Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish," but the next question asks about race, and that's where a lot of people are getting stuck.
On question No. 9, you can check "White," "Black," "Asian Indian," "Filipino" or "Samoan," among 10 other choices, but there is no obvious category for Latinos, Arabs, or mixed race people. Instead, there's a place to write in "Some other race," and that has plenty of Americans confused.
The bureau doesn't categorize Latino or Arab as races, but if race is defined by the color of one's skin for some people, why are the only color options "black" and "white" and not "yellow" or "brown"?
"We can't be specific about certain people and leave other people off completely," said Shereen Meraji, a reporter/producer for NPR who is of Puerto Rican and Iranian heritage.
Meraji chose "Hispanic" for question No. 8, but for her race? She wrote in "Iranian."
"As a Puerto Rican/Iranian, I don't consider myself white," Meraji said. "Checking that box does not work for me."
During Last Census, 40 Percent Chose 'Other' for Race
Meraji is certainly not alone. Latinos, whether Portuguese-speaking Brazilians or Spanish-speaking Guatemalans, have no option but to write in their race. In the last census in 2000, 40 percent wrote in "other."
Further complicating matters, question No. 9 assumes that nationalities such as Chinese and Japanese are the same as race, though many with roots in those countries would call their race Asian.
Still, according to a new Pew Hispanic Center survey, the confusion isn't holding back participation. Nine out of 10 Hispanics say they will participate in the 2010 count. Nationally, about 50 percent of Americans have already returned their forms.