By Luc Schuster
April 26, 2022
Among the most interesting findings from the 2020 Census is that Some Other Race has become the second-largest racial group in Massachusetts. The same is true nationally. Much of this change reflects growth among people of Latino ethnicity, who often select (or are assigned) Some Other Race. This overlap is driven by the Census Bureau’s two-question approach to asking about race separately from Latino/Hispanic ethnicity.
But Latino population growth does not explain the whole story. Many people simply do not fit Americanized racial categories, especially as new immigrants arrive from all corners of the world, and as families increasingly form across racial lines. So, who is “Some Other Race” and why is this group growing?
While we don’t know precisely who is being counted as Some Other Race, there are a few common categories, including:
Take, for instance, former Boston City Councilor and 2021 Mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George. The child of immigrant parents—her mother from Poland and her father from Tunisia—she spoke on the campaign trail about her frustration with the options provided to her by the census (see the race and ethnicity questions as printed in the 2020 Census below). She identifies as a woman of color and ultimately chose to write in an answer reflecting her Arab identity, presumably under the Some Other Race checkbox.
For many countries, the Census practice of associating individual racial categories with specific countries may seem straightforward—e.g., someone from Nigeria is considered Black and someone from China is considered Asian. But when you think about it, this logic breaks down quickly. The United States is far from the only nation of immigrants. According to current practice, the Census considers all people reporting French origins to be White and all people reporting South African origins to be Black. To the extent that racial categories are useful at all, it’s clear that many people hailing from those countries may well be of different racial backgrounds than the single official one designated by the Census Bureau.
This became a much larger issue in 2020 because it was the first year for which there was a write-in box under the White and Black/African American checkboxes, instructing people to “(m)ark one or more (race) boxes AND print origins” in the write-in area. Ongoing Latino population growth combined with the importance of this back-end coding practice for 2020 is much of what’s behind the 129 percent increase nationwide in Some Other Race over the last decade, where it jumped from 21.7 million in 2010 to 49.9 million in 2020.
While this back-end coding practice changes the responses of Latinos most often, it applies to other groups as well. As mentioned above, for instance, the Census Bureau officially considers people from Brazil to be Some Other Race. So, if a person selects Black and then below that writes in “Brazil,” the Census Bureau counts this person as both Black and Some Other Race, even though the person never actually selected Some Other Race.
This has contributed to a large multiracial population spike for 2020 that is only partially explained by actual population growth among people who identify as multiracial. For more on the challenges that this presents for researchers aiming to track population change over time, see our 2021 research brief We're Reporting Census Data All Wrong.
Every U.S. census has included questions about race. As social norms around race, ethnicity, and identity have shifted over time, so too has the specific approach to asking these questions. But large changes haven’t been made in many years, and recently some researchers have been advocating for a new round of revisions. In 2015, the Census Bureau tested a revised approach that would have merged the two race and ethnicity questions into one, allowed for multiple responses, and added a new option for selecting Middle Eastern or North African. The Bureau found that this approach led to better information on people’s true identities and that it dramatically reduced the share of people selecting Some Other Race—down from 7 percent to 1 percent of the population.
Further, because MENA was a new option and because Latinos were not forced to select another racial category, this alternative approach would have also resulted in a lower White population total. This fact led to some countervailing political resistance. Some on the political right, resistant to America's growing racial and ethnic diversity, didn’t want to let go of these inflated White population totals. But some (although certainly not all) leaders of Middle Eastern or North African descent themselves resisted the addition of a MENA category out of fear that creating this new category could further “other” them in the American context. As we know, there can be real power in being considered White in America.
Ultimately, the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget, which had the final say over how the questions were asked, did not allow the Census Bureau to adopt this revised approach for 2020. For the time being, we are left with the current two-question approach, which is also used by the Census Bureau for the annual American Community Survey. The Biden administration has signaled an openness to consider a change, but it has not yet done so.
At the end of the day, there’s a limit to how precise a Census question on race could ever be. Race is a social construct based on categories that are imprecise, contested and ever-evolving. As the country’s foreign-born and multiracial populations grow, the lines between these categories blur even further. But getting these categories “right” is understandably high stakes in the American context, where racial categorization has been used for centuries as a tool for social and economic division. Some Other Race growing to become the second-largest race helps demonstrate the ongoing limitations of this approach to grouping people.