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We cannot achieve racial equity until we are ready to ask people to identify their race

Emily Campbell
Chief Executive Officer
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January 2, 2023
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Ohio is becoming more racially diverse. The demographic shift will naturally continue because the younger generation is more likely than previous generations to report being something other than “Non-Hispanic White Alone.” That’s the way the U.S. Census Bureau describes people who are white and nothing else. As we’ve written about in the past, the Census has continued to improve the options people can select to report their race and ethnicity. Not only do they collect the data, but they release it as well, which allows us to get a more nuanced understanding of the racial and ethnic composition of Ohio and its communities.

 Ohio is becoming more racially diverse.

Self-reporting on race leads to better data

Yet there remain many areas where data broken down by race is simply not available. Sometimes the information is collected, but it is suppressed to protect confidentiality because of small numbers of people in a certain ethic groups who face a certain condition. This is the case with much health data and has been especially problematic when attempting to look at infant mortality and youth suicide data. In other cases, race data is reported based on someone essentially guessing the race and ethnicity of a person in front of them.  

The Home Disclosure Mortgage Act (HDMA) helps prevent discrimination in lending. However, prior to the mid-2010s, HDMA prohibited lenders from asking about a person’s race or ethnicity, and institutions were required to report the race, ethnicity, and sex of applicants based on “visual observation or surname,” but they did not need to disclose that was how the information was gathered. Changes to the rules made it easier for mortgage applicants to voluntarily, and accurately, self-report their race and ethnicity, and since 2018, lenders have to report how the race information was collected. Now that we know how the race and ethnicity were obtained, researchers can better interpret the data.

Race is often excluded from program decisions

Other than the Census, most of the data sources we use were not collected simply for data’s sake. There is a natural tension when gathering information from (and about) people to balance what is needed to administer a program and what would be interesting from an analysis perspective. Most service providers lead toward needs, and you do not need to know someone’s race or ethnicity to provide food, child care, or a referral.

 There is a natural tension when gathering information from (and about) people to balance what is needed to administer a program.

We are often asked to examine the race breakdown of SNAP recipients, but the closest we could get was looking at the total population of Ohio counties. That doesn’t tell us anything about SNAP specifically. Our work on racial disparities in Lorain County specifically identified areas where it would be helpful to understand the race and ethnicity of children in high-quality early care and education programs. United Way of Greater Cleveland has made up-to-date 2-1-1 referral data publicly available, but not by race.  

Since Northeast Ohio’s communities continue to be so racially segregated, we can make some assumptions about who is calling 2-1-1 based on their ZIP code, but they are really just educated guesses. We don’t know if increases in requests for help are coming from any particular group, which could help us target solutions.  

In all three of cases, and many others, we can’t answer the questions on the minds of decision makers because the data doesn’t exist. People aren’t asked to report their race and ethnicity. Having this data would allow us to examine whether Black or Hispanic/Latinx Ohioans were accessing effective and efficient programs and identify areas where barriers still exist.

“We [need to] talk about race”

This is starting to change as organizations become more intentional about eliminating racial disparities. Every year, more data disaggregated by race becomes available and some providers have begun to ask someone about their race and ethnicity. But it still happens a lot less than one might think.

 Every year, more data disaggregated by race becomes available and some providers have begun to ask someone about their race and ethnicity.

“We don’t talk about race” is one way racism has been perpetuated among whites. We must become comfortable asking the question and valuing self-reported data if we are to target resources to effectively close gaps.

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