Establishing the Denominator: the Challenges of Measuring Multiracial, Hispanic, and Native American Populations (Wendy D. Roth)


1. For multiracial, Hispanic, and Native Americans, norms for racial and ethnic self-identification are less well established than they are for other population groups. There is considerable variation and fluidity in how multiracial, Hispanic, and Native Americans self-identify, as well as how they are classified by others. This presents challenges to researchers and analysts in terms of consistently and accurately estimating the size and population dynamics of these groups. I argue that for analytic purposes, racial/ethnic self-identification should continue to be treated as a statistical numerator, but that the challenge is for researchers to establish the correct denominator--the population that could identify as members of the group based on their ancestry. Examining how many people who could identify with these groups choose to do so sheds light on assimilation and emerging racial classification processes. Analyses of the larger potential populations further avoid bias stemming from nonrandom patterns of self-identification with the groups.

2. Keywords: race; ethnicity; measurement; mixed race; identity; census; statistics


3. Ethno-racial mixture is on the rise in the United States. . . These changes reflect an understanding that people with multiple racial ancestries often identify with more than one of them, but they also reveal that the norms for how these populations self-identify are less well established than for those who consider themselves solely BLACK or White. 1

4. Current estimates of ethnic and racial groups from the U.S. Census are based on individuals' ethno-racial self-identification or classification by a member of their household who fills out the census form, presumably a relative or someone who knows them well. Yet relative to White, BLACK, and Asian populations, 2 there is considerable fluidity in how multiracial, Hispanic, and Native American populations self-identify. In their comparison of individually linked responses in the 2000 and 2010 censuses, Liebler and colleagues (2014) found that 97 percent of non-Hispanic Whites, 94 percent of non-Hispanic BLACKs, and 91 percent of non-Hispanic Asians had the same self-identification in both censuses, but all other groups had much greater fluidity in their responses.

5. These findings are consistent with a number of other studies that show much greater fluidity in racial self-classification for multiracial, Hispanic, and Native American individuals, and greater stability in self-classification for non-Hispanic Whites, BLACKs, and . . .

6. These studies found the highest rates of consistency among self-reported Whites (91-98 percent) and BLACKs (90-99 percent. . . Observers tend to classify multiracial individuals as monoracial. More observers classify those with mixed BLACK backgrounds as only BLACK, while there is greater diversity in how they classify those with any other racial mixtures.

7. What is particularly notable is that inconsistencies persist even when the observer knows the person he or she is classifying. In one study, people who previously self-identified their ancestry but died before a follow-up study were identified by both a proxy--a next of kin or a nonrelative who knew them--and by funeral directors.. . .. They found high consistency between the household reports and proxy reports for Whites (98 percent), BLACKs (94 percent), and Asians (88 percent).

8. The greater fluidity of multiracial, Hispanic, and Native American self-identification, and greater inconsistency between their self-identification and observation by others, indicates that norms of classification are less well formed for these groups than they are for Whites, BLACKs, and Asians.. . .. Furthermore, when the individual in question is not the one filling out the household report for the census or ACS, there is likely to be greater discrepancy between what the household member reports and the individual's self-identification than for groups with more established norms of racial classification, such as Whites, BLACKs, and Asians.

9. These types of contextual factors are likely to matter more in the racial classification of ethno-racially mixed populations than for Whites, BLACKs, or Asians because of the greater fluidity in their identification and in the norms for how enumerators might classify the person.