Still Black or White: Why the Census Misreads Hispanics

Tim Padgett, Time, March 29, 2010

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{snip} Many, if not most, Hispanics in the U.S. think of their ethnicity (also known as Latino) not just in cultural terms but in a racial context as well. It’s why more than 40% of Hispanics, when asked on the Census form in 2000 to register white or black as their race, wrote in “Other”–and they represented 95% of all the 15.3 million people in the U.S. who did so.

An even larger share of Hispanics, including my Venezuelan-American wife, is expected to report “Other,” “Hispanic” or “Latino” in the race section of the 2010 census forms being mailed to U.S. homes this month. What makes it all the more confusing if not frustrating to them is that Washington continues to insist on those forms that “Hispanic origins are not races.” If the Census Bureau lists Filipino and even Samoan as distinct races, Hispanics wonder why they–the product of half a millennium of New World miscegenation–aren’t considered a race too. {snip}

Nor are they alone. Arabs, who would seem to have an even stronger race claim than Hispanics do, are trumpeting their own write-in campaign because the Census by default counts them as white–and the bureau announced this week that it has no intention of changing that policy in 2010. Incredibly, the term Arab doesn’t even appear on the census form, though other Asian ethnicities, like Indian, are listed as races. (Ironically, part of the problem is that Arab immigrants a century ago petitioned the Federal Government to be categorized as white to avoid discrimination. Today, Arab-American leaders realize how much that move has cost their community in terms of federal aid and legal clout.)

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Census officials say they’re simply adhering to race-category standards laid out for all federal agencies in 1997 by the White House Office of Management and Budget, criteria they confirm will be re-evaluated before the 2020 census. {snip} And Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group in Washington, D.C., says the Hispanic race question so far “has been hard to reconcile scientifically.”

Still, Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino, a Hispanic civic organization based in Washington, D.C., worries because most Hispanics who do choose between white and black select white. That “risks leaving a mistaken impression that they enjoy certain socioeconomic opportunities we associate with whites in this country,” says Kumar, “when in reality [Hispanics] are near the bottom in areas like education and upward mobility.” {snip}

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Many feel the Census also needs to fine-tune its idea of what is and isn’t Hispanic. {snip}

All of this should prod the Census Bureau to simplify things for future counts. The Hispanic-origins and race sections should be combined into one, less confusing section that asks folks what ethnic and/or racial group they belong to: white, black, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander or Hispanic. It should (as it already does for some groups on the form) provide space for designating subgroups–like Arabs, for example. (Many Jamaican- and Bahamian-Americans also feel the Census should list their Caribbean origins as a black subgroup.) And it should make clear that respondents can check more than one group. {snip}

Accommodating, if not promoting, multiple ethnic identification seems especially important at a time when a growing number of Americans–including their President–have mixed-race parentage. {snip}

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