Answers about collecting race & ethnicity data


racial data

New paper provides answers to questions about collecting race data

Collecting race and ethnicity data is a tricky job. Just ask the U.S. Census Bureau. Consider that when asked to identify their own race, nearly four out of 10 Hispanics selected “some other race.” The bureau intended for “some other race” to be a small, leftover category, but it outnumbers Asians, American Indians and those who report two or more races.

Nailing down these sorts of complexities is just one of many obstacles that have kept courts from collecting that data, but NCSC researchers Diane Robinson and Kathryn Genthon recently wrote a paper to encourage courts to find a way forward. They have the support of the nation’s top state court leaders, who have said doing so will allow courts to identify and remedy racial disparities and better serve all court users.

“Courts can only address racial and ethnic disparities if they know about them,” Robinson said. “That’s why it’s so important to collect the data.”

In two recent informal surveys of data specialists in 30 jurisdictions, 70 percent said their courts collect some race and ethnicity data. The most common method is observing a person’s physical characteristics, followed by obtaining the information through self-reporting.

The National Open Court Data Standards (NODS) include the collection of race and ethnicity data in all case types as well as two data elements for race -- one for self-reported and one for observed -- and two for ethnicity. The paper’s authors encourage courts to go beyond NODS and consider expanding the categories they collect to fit the needs of their communities. Courts that serve a large, diverse community of Pacific Islanders, for example, may want to add Native Hawaiian, Samoan, or Marshallese for more specific information about the communities they serve.

The paper also helps those who collect data decide how to do it and which types to collect.

As the paper makes clear, the barriers to do this work are considerable. Besides confusion over race and ethnicity categories, court staffers often don’t have the time or the technology, and there are concerns about how data will be used or interpreted.

Despite the barriers, “(T)he potential to better serve all segments of the community,” the authors wrote, “provides a compelling reason for courts to collect race and ethnicity data.”

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NCSC provides courts and judges, who may be a target to this kind of information, with the answers to these questions.