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Census Data on Race Could Be Confusing


Next year, the census bureau will release new numbers for the nation, documenting, among other things, the racial makeup of the United States.

But experts at the University of Virginia say there’s one big problem – the way the census counts multi-racial people. 

Some experts estimate the current population of Virginia as 63% white, 19% Black and 8% Hispanic, but new census numbers could be quite different, because of the way mixed race people are counted.

“If somebody checks Black and white, it’s going to go into the multi-racial category, unless they also checked Hispanic, in which case they’re going to go into the Hispanic one,” says  Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. 

He notes that the number of people who consider themselves multi-racial is rising, and that makes it look like the Black and Native populations of Virginia are falling.

“If we use a very strict definition of what Black is and ignore a lot of people who’ve checked the Black box and say, ‘You’re not Black, because you checked something else,’ you’re missing about 200,000 Black Virginians.  You know it’s about the same population as the city of Richmond. If you use the same criteria for people who say, ‘I’m American Indian’ or ‘Native,” you reduce Virginia’s American Indian population by about 80%.”

For planning and policy-making purposes, he says, that’s not good. We should probably double count people who say they’re half one category and half another, but that means the total will be higher than 100% -- a potentially confusing statistical situation.

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