The bureau released recommendations this week in which it suggested changes that include dropping the term "Negro" on its questionnaires and counting Hispanics as a single category, regardless of race. For now, the census defines Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race, and respondents who say they are of Hispanic or Latino origin are also asked to identify their race.
Changes to census questions -- which must be approved by Congress -- are often politically sensitive, not least because the official government data is used to draw political districts and divvy up billions of dollars in federal funding. And some Latino advocates and researchers have expressed concern that any wording changes on census questions could result in a lower Latino tally.
"People want to be sure that any changes they make won't mean a lower count of Latinos," said Angelo Falcon, president of the nonprofit National Institute for Latino Policy, who is also an adviser to the census. "We're trying to get a discussion going about the ramifications of any potential changes."
The bureau's new recommendations were based on research findings of a number of experimental questions given to 500,000 households during the 2010 census. The findings showed that many Americans believe the racial and ethnic categories now used by the census are confusing and don't always jibe with their own views of their identity.
For example, asked to state their race on the 2010 census, more than 19 million people, including millions of Latinos, chose "some other race," rather than select from the five categories offered on the census form: white, black, Asian, American Indian/Native Alaskan or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
One of the changes proposed now would simply ask respondents to choose their race or origin, allowing them to check a single box next to categories that would include white, black or Hispanic.
Another would add write-in categories to allow those of Middle Eastern or Arab origin to specifically identify themselves, officials said.
A third change would end the practice of offering the controversial term "Negro" as an alternative for African-American or black. Some African-Americans in 2010 criticized the government's continuing use of the word, saying it was outdated and offensive.
The National Urban League praised the latest census recommendations. "We believe the proposed changes are consistent with the way most people do choose to self-identify and will enable Census to more accurately capture the growing racial/ethnic diversity in the U.S," the league said.
Nicholas Jones, chief of the Census Bureau's racial statistics branch, said the research findings were the first step in a process leading to possible changes for the 2020 census.
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