For Latinos in the United States, defining racial identity isn’t always easy. With roots all over the world, our identities don’t always correspond to boxes that say white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander, or American Indian. And as Franchesca Ramsey points out in an episode of Decoded, the “other race” option can also be problematic. “I guess the ‘some other race’ category is supposed to be a passive-aggressive catchall for their beautifully diverse culture,” she said. “And even that option doesn’t really work. According to the US Census Bureau, most people who mark ‘some other race’ are often counted as white.”
The census has clearly distinguished that Hispanic/Latino doesn’t qualify as a race in the past. But this means the percentage of Caucasians in the US ends up inflated. A proposed solution is combining race and ethnicity into one question. As Ramsey explains, this may very well happen for the 2020 census. And if it goes through, then the Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin option will sufficiently answer the question.
Many will welcome this change. As a 2015 Pew Research Center survey found, two-thirds of Latinos consider their Hispanic background as part of their racial identity. Census data seems to suggest that Latinos’ idea of race doesn’t match the United States’ definition. For the 2010 census, 63 percent of Latinos picked one of the five categories. But 37 percent opted for “some other race” and wrote in things like Mexican, Hispanic, or Latin American, according to Pew Research Center. Despite the government clarifying that Latino wasn’t a race in 2010, there was virtually no difference between 2000 and 2010.
Last month, a group of Latino and African diaspora community leaders spoke to a Census Bureau representative about the possible changes. Miriam Jiménez Román, executive director of the Afro-Latin@ Forum, argued that the system in place doesn’t work. “You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect better results,” she said, according to Voice of America. “They say that we are the ones that are confused – that a Latino doesn’t understand race. But clearly the Census Bureau doesn’t understand it either.”
Roberto Ramirez, Population Division assistant chief for the U.S. Census Bureau, acknowledges that Latino will continue to avoid identifying with any of the given race categories as the population grows. In 2015, the office found that after combining ethnicity and race, fewer Latinos self-identified as “some other race.”
The bureau believes going this route will yield a more accurate representation of the US population. Some don’t feel confident this change will work. Tiffany Wheatland-Disu, community organizer and adjunct professor of Africana Studies at John Jay College, believes the Census needs a complete overhaul. “We want to challenge them to say, it’s not about trying to figure out semantics,” Wheatland-Disu said. “It is saying that the system itself and the methodology for the Census is completely flawed.”
An Afro-Brazilian, for example, may run into trouble. “People need to be able to identify as being a black and whatever else they are,” she added. “They shouldn’t have to choose between identities.”
With the census a few years away, it will be a while until we learn whether or not the bureau pulls off this proposed change. But it’s at least trying to take a step in the right direction. This confusing question also pops up in other place, like in naturalization applications.
In the meantime, check out the episode of Decoded above to learn more about the census’ flaws.