Statistics about the American melting pot may miscategorize portions of the population.
Jen’nan Ghazal Read, associate professor of sociology and global health, recently published a study that analyzed information collected by the Public Use Microdata Sample files in census 2000. In her study, Read altered the definition of Arab and Mexican identifiers and found a significant shift in population as well as changes in the stereotypical socioeconomic status of the overall groups.
“We have information out there that is valuable,” Read said. “I want to challenge people to think more complexly about ethnic identification, and for people to question these straightforward, simplistic statistics.”
According to Read’s research, if the census broadened its definition of Mexican-Americans to include individuals who did not identify as Hispanic or Latino as their primary identity, but reported Mexican ancestry or Mexican origin in other portions of the survey, the number of Mexican-Americans known to be legal in the U.S. would increase by 9.8 percent.
For the Arab population, expanding the label beyond "Arab ancestry" to include those born in an Arab country who also speak Arabic in the home increased the Arab population by 13 percent, from 1.1 to 1.3 million. The added individuals were more likely to identify as non-white or multiracial.
“I am not debating self-identification,” Read said. “I'm debating the standard use of definitions that have historically been used to define contentious groups."
Read added the scientific community must pay close attention to the definitions it ascribes to ethnic groups, as these definitions affect statistics and public policy, with a particularly important application of the data being resource allocation.
For example, a stereotype of Mexicans as an ethnic group is that they are more impoverished and uneducated relative to other groups, Read said.
Read's broader definition found Mexicans to be a more educated and affluent group than currently recorded though, with an 8.8 percent increase in high school graduates.
The study also said some may not classify themselves as Latino or Hispanic in order to separate themselves from negative popular conceptions.
Freshman Lindsey Zimmer noted she has trouble deciding which of her identities to indicate on forms.
"It is a part of who I am culturally, but only a part—I am half Cuban, but I am also Jewish and my dad’s family is Polish, so it’s hard to justify checking one box over the other when I am not defined by a single one," Zimmer said.
In addition, Read's definition found Arab-Americans to be 15.3 percent less likely to hold a bachelor's degree, which conflicts with the widespread conception of Arab-Americans being affluent and educated.
Junior Sarah Elsheryie, who identifies as an Arab-American, noted that the term Arab encompasses diverse individuals. She added that the available categorizations on most forms do not coincide with the conception of race that many "back home" in Egypt have and may be part of why Arabs with immigrant roots are misclassified in the census.
"The idea of race is just so different," she said. "Whether you're black or white, you're still Egyptian, but not as much of a racial hierarchy—it doesn't translate."
Read added that she hopes to push for a more critical understanding of labels.
“At the end of the day, my article is a cautionary tale," Read said. "Sometimes we take information at face value instead of digging deeper, and we can do better.”
The study was published in the August issue of Population Research and Policy Review.