how do you define "minority"?

I'm curious how others in this group would define "minority" in ACS or PEP terms if asked to do so. 

Background: We're running into an issue with some of our data tools which previously relied on single-year-of-age (SYA) bridged-race data from NCHS. Since those special tabs have been discontinued, I've started using the SYA "by special request only" data from the Population Estimates Program. Unfortunately, instead of the four bridged races in the NCHS data, the PEP data has 11 -- five each in the "alone" and "alone or in combination" groups, plus "two or more races". In both data collections, Hispanic is coded separately.

Previously we defined the "minority" as the total population minus the white non-Hispanic population. However, we now have to choose between two options (and there may be others):

1. total minus (white alone and non-Hispanic), or

2. total minus (white alone or in combination with other races and non-Hispanic).

As you can probably guess, option 1 gives a larger minority count, sometimes by as much as 4-5%. Also, the "alone or in combination groups" can overlap, so I'm concerned that using option 2 would result in some minority people being counted in the non-minority group.

Are there other approaches to defining "minority" that you use? I realize it can be a slippery concept, so I'm interested how others have tackled it in their own work.

  • Dear Glenn,

    I assume that you mean "racial/ethnic   minority."  I would go with 1 as I think that 1 matches with the historical context in the U.S.  What are the legal definitions for a minority in say the civil rights act of 1964?  This would have to be based on court cases.  I can't seem to find an article that discusses how race has been defined based on court cases.  However, as you know, the definition of race is based on "self identification."  Your race is defined by what box you check on the ACS form so I don't know how relevant my suggestion is.

    I went back and reread your post and you talk about the CDC/National Center for Health Statistics definitions/bridging.  Since I've done medical research for many years I would note that in epidemiology race is often (usually) a risk factor for health and health outcomes. When using ACS data and health outcomes you are pretty much stuck with the US Census ACS definition. But many times a medical questionnaire will give a different detailed definition.  An example of of using ACS data in epidemiology is  the CDC project which uses the ACS to get Small Area Estimates of BRFSS survey data at the census tract level. The ACS race data is used for the adjustments.  Food for thought and another context where ACS race/ethnicity data is used.

    Another  issue is how will the classification of a minority will be interpreted.  Again it depends on context. For a "social context" why look at legal cases/definitions?  Well these cases are decided based on a jury of your peers and hence they guide us on how the definitions are interpreted by the woman or man "on the street."   Here is a resource link at the Library of Congress that gives some legal resources on Hispanic

    Pew research has some useful reports on the interpretation of race and ethnicity for example

    Comparison of ancestry question, race question and ethnicity question for ACS (2019 working paper)

    Here is a definition in the United States Code    

    42 U.S. Code § 300u–6 - Office of Minority Health   secttion (g)(1) and (g)(2)

    (g) Definitions For purposes of this section:

    (1) The term “racial and ethnic minority group” means American Indians (including Alaska Natives, Eskimos, and Aleuts); Asian Americans; Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders; Blacks; and Hispanics.

    (2) The term “Hispanic” means individuals whose origin is Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or any other Spanish-speaking country.

    The census follows the definition of race is give by the Office of Management and Budget in Statistical Policy Directive No. 15.   I would note that this document defines "black"

    "A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa" which wouldn't necessarily correspond to the black in the sense of "self identification"

    I'm sure that there are a lot of people who are not of African descent who consider themselves "black."  Particularly some of those from the Indian subcontinent

    When I write a report that summarizes race I kind of hedge my bets by putting in an appendix with the following

    I got this text  from some document -probably on the census website but I can't find a link so here it is:


    The racial categories included in the American Community Survey questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. In addition, it is recognized that the categories of the race item include racial and national origin or sociocultural groups. People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture, such as "American Indian" and "White." People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race. An individual’s response to the race question is based upon self-identification.
    OMB requires that race data be collected for a minimum of five groups: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. OMB permits the Census Bureau to also use a sixth category - Some Other Race. Respondents may report more than one race.

    • White. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as "White" or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian.

    • Black or African American. A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as "Black or African American," or report entries such as African American, Kenyan, Nigerian, or Haitian.

    • American Indian and Alaska Native. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment. This category includes people who indicate their race as "American Indian or Alaska Native" or report entries such as Navajo, Blackfeet, Inupiat, Yup'ik, or Central American Indian groups or South American Indian groups.

    • Asian. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam. This includes people who reported detailed Asian responses such as: "Asian Indian," "Chinese," "Filipino," "Korean," "Japanese," "Vietnamese," and "Other Asian" or provide other detailed Asian responses.

    • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands. It includes people who reported their race as "Fijian," "Guamanian or Chamorro," "Marshallese," "Native Hawaiian," "Samoan," "Tongan," and "Other Pacific Islander" or provide other detailed Pacific Islander responses.

    • Two or more races. People may choose to provide two or more races either by checking two or more race response check boxes, by providing multiple responses, or by some combination of check boxes and other responses. For data product purposes, "Two or More Races" refers to combinations of two or more of the following race categories: "White," "Black or African American," American Indian or Alaska Native," "Asian," Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander," or "Some Other Race"

    [1] The U.S. Census Bureau collects race data in accordance with guidelines provided by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and these data are based on self-identification.

    Of course if you are going to use census data based on this definition the context of the application will be the important thing..

  • 1 is absolutely right! Sorry thought I had answered already. The short story is that you can’t use “White alone or in combination” as you can and should with other racial groups because a combination in itself would be diverse by any thoughtful standard I know. There’s a movement to reconsider — some think it’s worth pointing out that Alone Or in Combination White population is still growing even if even White Alone, non-Hispanic population has shrunk. Look up reports on “The Great Demographic Illusion.”  It’s debatable but I haven’t seen a clear argument for making that the standard for non-minority population. You’d be including people who are clearly subject to racial discrimination like, say, Barack Obama.—Tim Henderson 

  • Hi Glenn - 

    I would also use #1.

    BTW, the cancer surveillance world also depends on bridged race population data by single year of age.  The National Cancer Institute makes these data available at: U.S. Population Data (  These data might meet your needs.

  • Thanks for the suggestion, but as far as I can tell, the NCI data is the same as that released by NCHS, with the addition of adjustments for Hawaii. So they won't have 2021 (or beyond) SYA bridged-race data either. 

  • Glenn -

    You're right.  Sorry for the misinformation!