Confusing Race and Ethnicity on the 2020 US Census

The 2020 US Census is underway and US households are required to complete a form identifying all individuals living at their residence. On the form it will also ask for each individual’s race. People sometimes confuse race with ethnicity, which are really two different things. An easier way to understand this is someone may identify as white (race), but not all people who identify as white are Russian or Italian (ethnicity).

This brings up an interesting question. When completing the 2020 US census will people, instead of reporting their race, identify as their ethnicity as reported from their DNA testing?

DNA testing services such as Ancestry and 23andMe use algorithms to estimate a person’s ethnicity. These services often refine these algorithms and estimates based on new research and more people testing. To further complicate matters, when our future genealogists look at our census record will they have to understand the ethnicity algorithms used by these testing services in 2020?

How people report their race (or ethnicity) information on the current US census, may be similar to challenges current genealogists face working with older census records. For example someone who was identified as a “mulatto” on a census from the early 1900’s would be referred to as bi-racial today meaning they have one parent with African descent and the other parent as white.

Using the term “mulatto” today would be considered derogatory. This brings up another interesting question. Will our ethnicity or race terminology used from the DNA testing services or on the US census today be considered derogatory in the future? Time will only tell and we won’t begin to know the answers until 2092 (72 years), when our answers to this 2020 US census become available to future researchers.