The Census Bureau, preparing for the census in 2010, recently tried to eliminate the “some other race” option on its forms. From the bureau’s perspective, too many people erroneously placed themselves in this group. But at the instigation of a Latino congressman from New York, José E. Serrano, Congress barred the move by conditioning funding for the census on the retention of the “other race” category. Serrano, a Democrat, claimed a victory for “millions of American Latinos.” Latino civic organizations seem to agree, with both Mexican American and Puerto Rican civil rights groups praising his actions.
But in 1980 the Census Bureau introduced two changes that completely transformed the nature of this category: First, it added to its race question a companion item, inquiring of all Americans whether they were ethnically “Hispanic.” Second, it moved to a system of racial self-reporting. Instead of census enumerators assigning racial identities, the bureau asked every person filling out census forms to identify his or her own race.
Suddenly, the “other race” population exploded, increasing tenfold. And 97% of those claiming to be “some other race” also identified themselves as “Hispanic.”
Creating a new race category wasn’t what the bureau had in mind. In 1990 and 2000, in hopes of reducing the number of Latinos identifying as “other,” it tried to convey more clearly that its ethnicity and race questions should be answered independently. But to no avail. Today, about 6% of Americans, or more than 1 in 20, count themselves as “some other race,” and the overwhelming majority of them are Latinos. Like it or not, nearly half of the Latino population considers itself a race.
One thing is sure: The Census Bureau betrays its mission of accurately measuring life in the United States—including our success in transcending racial divisions—when rather than grappling with the sociological reality of an emerging Latino race it attempts instead to bury the evidence by jettisoning the “other race” category. Serrano should be applauded for preempting this strategy, but retaining the “other race” option on census forms is only a partial response.
The bureau should study and publish data on those who consider themselves members of a Latino race. This means gathering the same sort of information collected about the other races: basic population numbers on age, gender, family size and geographical location, as well as statistics on educational attainment, homeownership, income levels and so on. The census would not be creating this group, as some will surely charge, but only doing its job of portraying America as it actually is.
After all, those of us who see ourselves as members of a Latino race number nearly 17 million—and counting.