Harvard sociology professor examines census flaws – Harvard Gazette

A quick look at the headlines generated by the recently released 2020 census data will tell you that the white population is dropping sharply and minority groups are on the rise. But associate professor of sociology Ellis Monk says there’s more to the population count than what’s reported by the media.

Monk’s research interests include questions of social inequality and political sociology, and some of his recent work involves understanding colorism and the role that skin tone stratification plays in inequality. The media was obsessed with census results suggesting a decrease in the portion of the population that is white, but Monk believes the issue of race and how it is quantified is much more complex than how it is characterized. .

“One takeaway that we saw a lot in the media was about the alleged decline in the white population and some increases in ‘mark one or more’ [races] multiracial or biracial population, ”he said. “My main reaction is really the way the questions, the census forms itself are actually produced,” because a lot depends on how they are worded and presented.

Research has shown that the way the questions are worded can have a profound effect on the results, he said. And some of the questions regarding race and ethnicity have been reconfigured for 2020.

Census data revealed that the population of people who chose “white” as their only racial group has declined 8.6% since 2010, the last census. Meanwhile, the multiracial population has seen an explosion in reports, dropping by 276%, from 9 million people in 2010 to 33.8 million in 2020.

Some demographic changes can be attributed to wording choices, Monk said. The census has been collecting data on race and ethnicity since 1790, but the latest population count changed the way people identified themselves. Previous censuses only asked Hispanic respondents to indicate their origin. The 2020 census for the first time extended questions on origin to all respondents. He also called on Latinxes to identify themselves as “of Hispanic, Latin or Spanish descent,” and in addition to identifying their race.

Problems of race and ethnicity in the census are long standing. The office estimates that in 2010 it overestimated whites and underestimated blacks, Latinxes and Native Americans who live on reservations.

The accuracy of the tally is important because the data is used to determine the number of seats each state obtains in the United States House of Representatives and to redraw electoral districts. In addition, the numbers are used to determine the amount of federal funding that communities receive for schools, hospitals, roads and public works.

Census officials began looking at possible changes to the race questions in 2015. That year, Monk participated in a panel with researchers from the American Sociological Association office who were testing for an experiment of ” alternative question ”. The experience involved different ways of asking questions about the origins of people, especially those from the Middle East and Latin America. The researchers found that racial or ethnic results changed dramatically depending on how the self-identification questions were asked.

Besides the language changes, the way the questions were spaced or worded “certainly could have played a role in increasing the number of people who feel pressured to mark one or more categories on the census,” Monk said.

The sociologist also fended off speculations from demographers that part of the decline in the white population could be due to uncertainty among some Latinx respondents on how to answer the racial question. He said that assuming people don’t know how to answer a racial question implies there is a correct answer.

“My first response is that the underlying presumption is that there is objective truth about someone’s racial identity,” he said. “It makes me a little uncomfortable to think that people may not know how to answer a question.”

Monk acknowledged that the numbers support the report that there are fewer people who identified as both Hispanic and White in 2020 than there were in 2010.

“It could be a function of the political context in which we find ourselves and the growing recognition of xenophobia, of the anti-Latino, [and] anti-Hispanic discrimination in the Trump era, ”Monk said, adding that the political atmosphere may have caused people to rethink how they identify or not respond.

The information gathered during the population count is important in giving us a broad understanding of the levels of ethno-racial inequality in our society, Monk said. However, he noted that the categories used by the census did not take into account people’s appearance, including their skin tone, facial features and hair type, all of which are used when people discriminate against others.

“One thing we do know – from my own research and others who are doing this research on colorism and skin tone layering – is that there is quite a significant inequality associated with differences in skin tone,” said he declared. For example, research shows that there is more educational inequality among the black population along the continuum of light to dark skin tone than there is between blacks and blacks. Whites as a whole.

This lack of nuance in collecting census data limits what we can really learn about racial inequalities in the country, Monk added.

“One of the main concerns for the future is really how certain elements we see in society right now, the people speaking – especially more [among] right-wing conservatives in the political spectrum – relate to things like the replacement thesis, the idea that somehow whites are going to end up being the minority in the country. Monk said he is already seeing data being used this way among increasingly vocal white supremacist groups.

The 2020 census encountered a number of additional hurdles, including funding issues, various practical and logistical complications brought on by COVID-19, and controversy over an unsuccessful offer by the Trump administration to add a question. of citizenship.

“I think even before the pandemic you have these kinds of factors on the political context, a general perception that there was a lack of resources allocated to the census to even conduct the census in the first place,” Monk said. “You add the pandemic, and, certainly, I would actually say I would be surprised if it weren’t for undercoverage.”

The potential undercoverage of Blacks and Browns in the United States will ultimately affect the types of resources and representation these communities can receive, Monk said.

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