Learning About Racial Demography Using the US Census

This page authored by Liz Raleigh, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton College, based on an original assignment.
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


The purpose of this activity is to give students the opportunity to learn how the US Census categorizes race and understand how racial outcomes are measured. In total, four different Census reports on 1) whites 2) blacks 3) Hispanics 4) Asians will be utilized. In small groups, students will read and discuss a Census report specific to a racial/ethnic group (e.g. the Hispanic population in the US). Then they construct a series of talking points and visuals, distilling the vast amount of information into a three-minute presentation. Individually, each member of the group will be tasked with presenting and teaching this information to another group. Students not only will get a chance to digest the material in the Census reports, but also teach it to others.

Learning Goals

Through this assignment, students will learn how the Census measures race and gain experience reading and analyzing descriptive statistics. In addition, they learn how to parse large amounts of quantitative data to figure out which findings are worth emphasizing. Also, the assignment provides students with the opportunity to communicate quantitative information to their peers.

Context for Use

This assignment works well in an undergraduate classroom and can be modified to fit classes ranging from 8-40 students. Because one of the goals of the assignment is to help students understand how the Census measures race, this assignment would be better suited to earlier in the term before too many discussions about racial demography take place. However the timing could be adjusted to suit the instructor's needs. The assignment involves some outside of class work such as reading a report for homework, and working in small groups to construct some graphs. No special equipment is necessary and there is no prerequisite needed to successfully complete the assignment.

This assignment works well in conjunction reading about the history of the census and the mutability of racial categories (such as Chapter 3 from Lee and Bean's (2012) the Diversity Paradox. I would also suggest introducing this in conjunction with Tukufu Zubieri's essay, Thicker Than Blood: An essay on how racial statistics lie (2001). Together these readings provide a solid foundation for discussing the pros and cons of racial demography.

Description and Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

[It works best to introduce the assignment at the end of the class the day before you want to teach the lesson. You would need to allot a few minutes for students to get into groups, and get assigned a Census Report.]

1)Divide students into four groups (e.g count off by four). Depending on the size of your class, these groups may be very big but that is ok for now. Unless your class size is a factor of 4, you'll have an uneven number of people in each group, which is fine.

2)Randomly assign each of the four groups a census report to read for homework that night. That way each student is only responsible for carefully reading one report, not all four. Let students know that they are responsible for giving the report a close read, highlighting trends and issues that stand out, and coming prepared to the next class to discuss the material with their group.

3)The following class, reconvene your groups. Depending on your class size, you may want to divide your groups into even smaller groups, that way only 4-5 students are discussing a Census report at a time.

4)Give student about 8-10 minutes to discuss what they've found. They can be guided by the following questions:
a. What stood out most about the findings from the report?
b. What do you think about the way the Census defines race? Do you agree with this approach?
Can you think of a better way?
c. What questions did you have about the findings?
d. You've focused specifically on one racial/ethnic group. How would comparative data help/hinder your understanding?
e. How would Zubieri respond to this assignment?

5)After students have discussed, tell them they are responsible for distilling the Census report into a 3 minute presentation providing an overview of the data. Emphasize that they will have to make choices regarding which information to highlight and which to ignore. They will also be responsible for making 3 visuals to accompany their presentation. These can be tables, graphs, etc. One goal of the assignment is to practice making graphs/charts, thus students should NOT just take a screen shot of the Census report but use the information to make their own table, graph, etc that is clear and concise. These handouts should be emailed to the instructor before the next class so that s/he can have sufficient copies for all students.

6)The following day of class, students will then be responsible for acting as an ambassador for their group and presenting the material. Students should assemble into different small groups consisting of one ambassador from each race-group Census report. Ideally, there will be four people in a group, but with uneven numbers of students, there could be more. Each student will briefly present the main talking points to the other group, using the handouts as a visual guide. By the end of the activity, every student will have been taught the relevant information by his/her peers and also had the chance to hone their skills speaking about numbers.


This activity is worth about 5% of students' grade (i.e. 5 points). Members of the four groups are responsible for handing in their materials for evaluation. Students will get up to 3 points for the materials (check minus, check, check plus). Students will also get to evaluate the contributions of their peers by awarding them 0, 1, or 2 points. Full credit is given when students successfully hand in 3 clear and concise tables or graphs that effectively communicate the information from the report and when they act as fully contributing members to their group.

References and Resources

Jennifer Lee and Frank D. Bean. 2012. The Diversity Paradox. Chapter 3: What is this person's race? The Census and the Construction of Racial Categories. New York: Russell Sage.

Zuberi, Tukufu. 2003. Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.