America’s Churning Races: Race and Ethnicity Response Changes Between Census 2000 and the 2010 Census


A person’s racial or ethnic self-identification can change over time and across contexts, which is a component of population change not usually considered in studies that use race and ethnicity as variables. To facilitate incorporation of this aspect of population change, we show patterns and directions of individual-level race and Hispanic response change throughout the United States and among all federally recognized race/ethnic groups. We use internal U.S. Census Bureau data from the 2000 and 2010 censuses in which responses have been linked at the individual level (N = 162 million). Approximately 9.8 million people (6.1 %) in our data have a different race and/or Hispanic-origin response in 2010 than they did in 2000. Race response change was especially common among those reported as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander, in a multiple-race response group, or Hispanic. People reported as non-Hispanic white, black, or Asian in 2000 usually had the same response in 2010 (3 %, 6 %, and 9 % of responses changed, respectively). Hispanic/non-Hispanic ethnicity responses were also usually consistent (13 % and 1 %, respectively, changed). We found a variety of response change patterns, which we detail. In many race/Hispanic response groups, we see population churn in the form of large countervailing flows of response changes that are hidden in cross-sectional data. We find that response changes happen across ages, sexes, regions, and response modes, with interesting variation across racial/ethnic categories. Researchers should address the implications of race and Hispanic-origin response change when designing analyses and interpreting results.

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Fig. 1
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Fig. 6


  1. 1.

    We use the terms “race,” “ethnicity,” and “Hispanic origin” in congruence with the federal statistical guidelines used to collect the data (Office of Management and Budget (OMB) 1997). Federally defined race categories are white, black or African American (“black” here), American Indian or Alaska Native (“American Indian” here), Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (“Pacific Islander” here) (OMB 1997). The Census Bureau also uses a residual category called Some Other Race (“SOR” here). The two federally defined ethnicity categories are Hispanic and non-Hispanic. The ethnicity question is separate from the race question; see Fig. 1.

  2. 2.

    We study all response changes in the same way but acknowledge that each change has its own meaning and reasons. For example, adding or dropping a second race response could reflect a different identity phenomenon than switching responses from one single race to another.

  3. 3.

    Population churning—countervailing flows into and out of a response category—is (at most) minimally discussed in these reports.

  4. 4.

    This comparison is limited by differences in response mode (mail vs. phone) and question format (multiple race responses invited vs. one response invited).

  5. 5.

    The West region includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

  6. 6.

    Enumerators are involved when the household does not return the mailed census form; when the address is in an area that consists of mostly seasonal homes; and in some extremely rural areas, such as western American Indian reservations, Alaska Native areas, and rural Maine (Fallica et al. 2012; Walker et al. 2012).

  7. 7.

    The 63 race response categories (six race groups alone and in each combination) are not labeled in Fig. 2 but are in the same order as Fig. 3 and Census 2000 Summary File 1 (see U.S. Census Bureau 2007:6–1 to 6–3).

  8. 8.

    Recall that our case selection criteria exclude people whose 2000 data list them as multiple-race including SOR (62 race/Hispanic response categories); those 62 empty rows are not shown.

  9. 9.

    Two other common patterns (ranked 9th and 11th) also show race response changes by people who were consistently identified as Hispanic.

  10. 10.

    The vertical line in each column of Fig. 4 marks the average among response changers, as shown in the second row above the table.

  11. 11.

    When group-specific response change rates are applied to the full Census 2000 population, the estimated rate of response change increases to 8.3 % (Liebler et al. 2014).


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Liebler, C.A., Porter, S.R., Fernandez, L.E. et al. America’s Churning Races: Race and Ethnicity Response Changes Between Census 2000 and the 2010 Census. Demography 54, 259–284 (2017).

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  • Race
  • Hispanic origin
  • Response change
  • Census 2000
  • 2010 census