All About Race and Ethnicity in the Census


We often see categories such as "White", "Black or African American", "Asian", "Hispanic" and others in census data results. These are examples of both race and ethnicity categories — two different but often confused concepts. What do they mean and how are they determined?


The U.S. Census Bureau considers race and ethnicity to be two separate and distinct concepts.

Race is a person's self-identification with one or more social groups. On census surveys, an individual can report as White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, or some other race. Additionally, respondents may report multiple races.

Ethnicity determines whether a person is of Hispanic origin or not. Ethnicity is therefore divided into two mutually exclusive categories: Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino. Hispanic origin may be viewed as the heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person (or the person's parents/ancestors) before arriving in the United States.

Ancestry refers to a person's ethnic origin or descent, "roots," or heritage, or the place of birth of the person or the person's parents/ancestors.

Race and ethnicity are independent of each other. Both Hispanics and non-Hispanics may report as any race or combination of races. In addition, categories of race include national origin or sociocultural groups.

Regions of Origin

The U.S. Census Bureau adheres to the 1997 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) standards on race and ethnicity, which guide classification of responses to the race question. The following five race categories are used in all census data products as well as MCDC's data applications.

Why the Census Includes Race and Ethnicity Questions

Information on race is required for many federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. States use race data to meet legislative redistricting principles. Race data also are used to assess equal employment practices, equal access to health care, and racial disparities in environmental risks.

In commercial and research settings, race and ethnicity data can be useful for developing business plans; understanding disparities in housing, employment, income, and poverty; completing grant applications; and more.

Race information cannot be used to enforce immigration laws on persons or families. The Census Bureau adheres to strict confidentiality laws that prohibit sharing of respondent information and does not share respondent answers with immigration, law enforcement, tax collection agencies, or any other organization.

For more information, see the U.S. Census Bureau's race topic page.