UVA demographers say 2020 Census race data may cause confusion down the road

2020 Census data on race could cause confusion down the road as information is studied and used for things like funding and drawing district lines.
Updated: Jan. 7, 2021 at 12:53 PM EST
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ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - For many people, the question, “What race or ethnicity are you?” on the census can come with several different answers. Demographers at the University of Virginia say the way we identify ourselves on the census, paired with its format, could cause some confusion as data from it - set to be released within the coming months - is studied and used.

“I think there’s a view a lot of people have about race data that it’s sort of you’re either Black or white, you’re Asian, you’re Hispanic. But you’re finding more and more people saying they’re Black and white, Asian and Hispanic,” Hamilton Lombard, a demographer and researcher at UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, said.

Lombard says not only is the census changing how it asks about race and ethnicity, but how people actually respond to it is changing, too.

“About one-in-eight Virginians identify as more than one race or ethnicity, so you’re probably going to see it go from one-in-eight up towards maybe one-in-three,” Lombard said.

The change in demographics, paired with changes in responses, complicates how the data is used by lawmakers and policy experts - from making funding decisions to drawing district lines.

“When they’re drawing district boundaries, they’re going to look a lot at race and ethnicity data. But, if one-in-eight Virginians are checking multiple boxes, how do you identify the Black population? You can do it, but it’s a little more complicated than in the past where a vast majority of Black Virginians identified as just Black,” Lombard said.

Lombard says trying to not leave anyone out of the count, while also not further complicating the metrics used to quantify census data, is not as black and white as it seems, both figuratively and literally: “About one-in-eight Black Virginians identify as Black and another race or ethnicity. That’s over 200,000 Black Virginians. So if you just said, ‘we’re only counting what people typically do, people who say ‘I’m Black and Black alone,’ you’re missing a Black population in Virginia which is equivalent to almost the entire City of Richmond.”

Lombard says the coronavirus pandemic alone will have specific impacts on the area’s 2020 Census data, as students moved out of Charlottesville early in the year and more families from metro areas like Washington, D.C. move in.

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