Posted on December 26, 2011

Racial Identity Is Changing Among Latinos

Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody, PhysOrg, December 26, 2011


Some first, second, and later generation Latinos in the United States are not identifying ethnically as Latino as they integrate into the fabric of American society, a recent USC Dornsife study found. On the American Community Survey (ACS), which is administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, many people with Latin American ancestry do not identify ethnically as Hispanic.

The study led by Amon Emeka and Jody Agius Vallejo, assistant professors of sociology in USC Dornsife, examines why Latinos often do not choose a Latino ethnic identification on U.S. Census surveys. Emeka and Agius Vallejo’s paper was published in the November 2011 issue of Social Science Research.

Emeka and Agius Vallejo analyzed figures from the U.S. Census’ 2006 American Community Survey and investigated why Latinos are identifying as non-Hispanic. {snip}

Currently, the federal government defines “Latino” not as a racial group but as an ethnicity, and Latinos can be of any race. Respondents are asked on U.S. Census and ACS forms “Is this person Hispanic, Spanish, or Latino?” which is followed by the question, “What is this person’s race.” Researchers typically rely on the first question, the Hispanic ethnicity question to determine the number of Hispanic respondents and the size of the Hispanic population. However as Emeka and Agius Vallejo point out, analysts do not consider the way the question, “What is your ancestry?” is answered.

As Emeka and Agius Vallejo demonstrate, of approximately 44.1 million U.S. residents who declared Hispanic or Latin American ancestry in the survey that year, 2.5 million–or 6 percent–did not check the Hispanic box and thus do not ethnically identify as Spanish/Hispanic/Latino. As a result of some Latinos’ propensity to not check the Hispanic race box on the census, a correct analysis of Hispanic achievement and mobility in America is undermined. Data from U.S. Census Bureau surveys are used to make population projections and track the minority groups with the largest and fastest educational growths, and 2.5 million people with Latin American ancestry are left out of these analyses.


In addition, respondents’ confusion with the terms ethnicity, ancestry and race often result in inconsistent answers on the U.S. Census surveys, the study found. Oftentimes the lines among these categories are blurred. And as immigrants assimilate, their identities shift.

Their findings suggest that some Latin Americans see themselves as non-Hispanic because a racial identity has become more salient in their daily lives. So they are checking the “white,” “black” or “Asian” boxes.


“There’s still this tendency to only pick one race, especially among African Americans, when you can claim more than one on U.S. Census surveys,” Agius Vallejo said. “This power of race or this reinforcement of identity depends not only on how you identify yourself but also depends on the ways in which people identify you.”

For example, the USC Dornsife scholars added that the pressure multiracial college students can feel to get involved in campus organizations geared toward single races, ethnicities, or ancestries such as African American, Latino, or Pacific Islander groups often complicates the racial identity issue.


Non-Hispanic identification was most common among U.S.-born Latin Americans, respondents with mixed ancestries, those who speak only English, and those who identify on the race question as Black or Asian the study found.

The findings suggest that a significant number of Latino immigrants and their offspring may be thoroughly integrating into American society, but their close identification with other racial groups distorts the data. {snip}