[OP-ED]: Despite how the Census Bureau now treats it, ‘Hispanic/Latino’ is not a race
The U.S. Census Bureau has been experimenting with alternate versions of the race and ethnicity section of its National Content Test Research Study. The bureau hopes that by the next census in 2020, it can more accurately tally Hispanics and other newly prominent minority groups.
Basically, the bureau found in its recently released 2015 study that if the format of the identity prompt combines race and ethnicity into a single question, it results in more accurate reporting and dramatically lower nonresponses compared to the 2010 style. In the 2010 iteration, respondents were first asked to answer whether they were of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin and then asked to specify their race.
The proposal for a new, combined question is quite long, asking: “What is Person 1’s race or ethnicity? Mark all boxes that apply AND print ethnicities in the spaces below. You may report more than one group.”
A respondent can then choose from white, Hispanic, Latino or Spanish, black or African-American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska native, Middle Eastern or North African, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander or “Some other race or ethnicity.” Then, within each of those categories, one can get more specific.
For instance, my husband would choose the white category and then, if he really wanted to go way back up the family tree, check off the English and Irish ethnicity boxes.
I would choose the “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish” category and then check off “Mexican or Mexican-American” and also write in “Ecuadorean.”
My teenage sons, assuming they were interested in detailing every bit of their ancestry to the Census Bureau (and I can’t imagine them ever wanting to do so), would do all of the above, choosing two categories and checking off four separate ethnicities.
Whew, it’s kind of tiring just thinking about it, but no one ever promised that filling out the Census form was going to be easy.
Still, the proposed combination of the race and ethnicity question has been controversial to those who track such esoterica because it, effectively, implies that the Hispanic/Latino designation is a race. To be clear: It is not.
Hispanics can be of any race -- in my own family we have black Hispanics, Asian Hispanics and white Hispanics.
But even as some stick to the technicality of the Hispanic designation not being a race, others note that this distinction is already meaningless to a large swath of our society.
According to Nicholas Vargas, a professor and expert on Latino studies at the University of Florida, if the Hispanic designation became conflated with a race as the result of media attention to the new format of the question -- or subsequent reporting on the results of the next Census -- then it would be a small price to pay for better data on how people identify themselves.
“It would really be a better reflection of how race and ethnicity are organized in the U.S. rather than a major ‘change,’” Vargas told me. “For a large proportion of people, this reflects how they self-identify or how they already experience race. ... I don’t see the question producing any new political or cultural categories.”
And the upside could be significant to those looking to break out of the monolithic stereotypes assigned to their races.
Already Asian-American, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian advocacy organizations are pushing for legislative changes to how their data are captured and reported in order to articulate differences in socioeconomic status, educational attainment and health characteristics across different subgroups.
Similarly, science is finally beginning to understand the distinction in health issues and the effectiveness of medical-outreach programs with African-Americans, U.S.-born Caribbean blacks, and migrants to the U.S. from Africa.
Ironically, as the desire by racial and ethnic groups to get more prominence has gained traction, the election of Donald Trump has made the project to better identify who is in our country even trickier.
Groups that for years wanted visibility in Census data, like those with Middle Eastern ethnicity, are wondering if the spotlight would be detrimental in a time when the president stokes fears about non-white terrorists.
Latino advocacy organizations are also worried about what the impact of stepped-up immigration enforcement actions and deportations will have on Latinos’ willingness to come to the door to answer personal questions from government representatives.
Only time will tell how presidential politics could affect participation in the 2020 Census. For now, identity politics may yet influence the final question wording, which must be submitted to Congress by April 2018.