Because the nation’s statistical system is highly decentralized, the data produced by the system may lack consistency and vary considerably in quality. We lack information about such differences among racial subgroups. In addition, survey practices and data collection methods differ considerably depending on the type of survey and the kind of respondent. Federal government guidelines make self-identification of race by respondents the preferred means of collection, “except in instances where observer identification is more practical, e.g., completing a death certificate” (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 1997:8). Even so, in many federal government surveys—including the census, from which the country’s most comprehensive data on race and ethnicity are developed—the household member who responds to the questions identifies the race and ethnicity of all members of the household.

In many respects, the changes in race/ethnicity categories incorporated into the 2000 census are useful. During the next decade, the federal government needs to further improve race and ethnicity data.

Recommendation 10.1. The federal government and, as appropriate, state and local governments should continue to collect data on race and ethnicity. Federal standards for race categories should be responsive to changing concepts of groups in the U.S. population. Any resulting modifications to the standards should be implemented in ways that facilitate comparisons over time to the extent possible.

Recommendation 10.2. Data collectors, researchers, and others should be cognizant of the effects of measurement methods on reporting of race and ethnicity, which may affect the comparability of data for analysis:

  • To facilitate understanding of reporting effects and to develop good measurement practices for data on race, federal agencies should seek ways to test the effects of such factors as data collection mode (e.g., telephone, personal interview), location (e.g., home, workplace), respondent (e.g., self, parent, employer, teacher), and question wording and ordering. Agencies should also collect and analyze longitudinal data to measure how reported perceptions of racial identification change over time for different groups (e.g., Hispanics and those of mixed race).

  • Because measurement of race can vary with the method used, reports on race should to the extent practical use multiple measurement methods and assess the variation in results across the methods.

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