Why Census will change how it asks about race

I never forget how excruciating it was to manually calculate the percent of Hispanics, next to White and Black, who lived in the 2 mile radius of all the stores for a chain I worked for.  We needed to know the demographics of our trade area customers.  And you see, Hispanic was/is an ethnicity, not a race–so we had to manually get to a good number because ethnicity and race overlapped, and they were confusing and interchangeable.

Clearly, we weren’t the only ones.  I’m not sure why it took so long, but finally, seeking better data on Hispanics, Census may change questions on how it asks about race.  This Pew article explains that Census data on race and Hispanics are used to redraw congressional district boundaries and enforce voting and other civil rights laws, as well as myriad of research, including Pew.  And of course, businesses use all these research data to better understand their customers’ demographics, lifestyles, purchasing behaviors, etc.  In 2015, Census tested different ways of combining the Hispanic and race questions.  They even proposed a new Middle Eastern/North African category as well.  (Wow, now I actually have a box to check other than “other”).  The results were promising.  For example, 70% of self-identified Hispanics in combined question did not choose a race, compared to 8.4% in previous reports who checked 2 or more races, or “other” boxes.  Pew also found that majority of Hispanics don’t identify with the standard race categories and prefer to use their family’s country of origin rather than the pan-ethnic terms Hispanic or Latino.

And…there is a huge multiracial population growth that is not covered in this particular article.  In September 2015, I wrote, it’s time to refine race and multiculturalism–future is already here.  I explained that the US Census started collecting details on multiracial population since 2000 when it first allowed respondents to check off more than one box for race—and 6.8 million people did so (6.7%). Ten years later that number jumped to 8.4% or 9 million, making multiracials one of the fastest growing population in the US. In 2015, Pew, using a different method Census, took into account the races reported by adults along with the races for their parents and grandparents, and reported that 6.9% (or 22 million) of Americans 18+ are multiracials.  You can expect this number to be significantly higher in 2020 when Census questionnaire changes.

Multiracial growth is clearly fueled by mixed race marriages which has almost quadrupled.  In 2013, 1 in 10 babies living with two parents were multiracial. A big jump from only 1% in 1970. William Frey in his New Republic article indicated that now more than one in seven newlywed couples are multiracial, not counting non-married multiracial couples who are adding to the growing multiracial babies. Interestingly, almost half of these mixed marriages include Whites. So, race, altogether, is becoming much trickier to define.

What does all this mean to you and your business?

For one thing, it will give you and your businesses a far more accurate understanding of your current or future customers’ demographics.  While I think businesses, just like our government, will still need to evaluate race and ethnicity as part of better understanding the customers they serve or target, it will make a lot more sense to focus on needs and values that are unique to each as well as shared by many.  Those needs and values are driven by so much more than race, ethnicity, geography, or family’s origin.

I think we’ve reached a point that we can no longer define race biologically, anthropologically or genetically. Race used to be seen as a fixed physical characteristics which, again, is much trickier to see and define these days.  Racial identity is a highly nuanced concept, and a very personal one influenced by culture, lifestyle, politics, religion, history and geography. And non-white population growth, multiracial marriages and births are all part of a phenomenon that will redefine how race is actually viewed and lived in America.

I’m sure you’ve heard that customers’ decisions are emotional.  Simply put, we all decide emotionally and justify/validate rationally.  So business is personal, and at the end of every business relationship line, there is a person who is motivated through beliefs and values.  I call that marketing to the “inside” of the customer, not “outside” image or race.  While beliefs and values can be influenced by race, the definition of race itself is changing.  And so should our business definition.


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