The U.S. Census Bureau survey could look a little different in 2020. Census officials are considering dropping all mention of the words “race” or “origin” in the next questionnaire. Instead, the 2020 survey may ask respondents to check the “categories” that best describe them, including regions such as the Middle East or North Africa, according to a report Thursday from the Pew Research Center.

The Census Bureau has faced challenges in asking people about their racial and ethnic background in past surveys. Officials there are exploring the possibility of updating that portion of the survey in order to make the questions clearer and easier for Americans to answer.

In the 2010 census, 94 percent of the U.S. population checked at least one of the five standard, government-defined racial categories: white, black, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander. But only 63 percent of Latinos selected at least one of these, and 37 percent instead checked “some other race,” often writing “Hispanic,” “Mexican” or “Latin American” in the write-in response box. Two-thirds of Hispanic adults consider being Hispanic part of their racial makeup. But federal policy defines “Hispanic” as an ethnicity, not a race. Self-identified Hispanics can be of any race, the agency says.


Census officials have recognized this confusion as well as the differing opinions on what defines “race” and “origin.” The bureau is expected to send test-census forms to 1.2 million respondent households this fall to assess the effect of alternative question wording. Instead of using the words “race” or “origin,” the test-census will ask: “Which categories describe person 1?” Respondents can then choose from the list of races and origins, which will include a new "Middle Eastern or North African" category. The test will also combine "Hispanic," "Latino" or "Spanish origin" into one category. If adopted, the changes will appear on the 2020 census forms.

“We recognize that race and ethnicity are not quantifiable values,” the Census Bureau said in a 2013 report. “Rather, identity is a complex mix of one’s family and social environment, historical or socio-political constructs, personal experience, context and many other immeasurable factors.”