Fordham Law

Census Racial Categories and the Latino “Culture” of Black Invisibility

Tanya Hernandez in SALTLAW blog, October 25, 2012

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By Tanya Hernandez

On October 25-26, 2012, the newly constituted U.S. Census Bureau National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations will be holding its first meeting in its role of assisting the Census Bureau in producing more accurate statistics about our diverse nation.  This meeting is open to the public at the U.S. Census Bureau headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, and   will begin to discuss the Census Bureau’s proposal to add “Latino” and “Hispanic” to the list of government-defined races on its decennial population survey questionnaire, amongst other issues.  This proposal has the potential to significantly hinder the demographic count of Latinos of African ancestry and should be rejected.

In the last census Hispanic was part of a separate ethnicity question rather than being listed as an option in the “what race are you” question.  Such a two-part formulation in 2010 enabled Latinos to indicate their ethnic origin as “Hispanics” and simultaneously indicate their racial identity as white, black, Asian or Native American.  Given the racial diversity of Latinos in the U.S., the pre-existing census form seems quite logical and should be retained.   For instance, with the current questionnaire structure the count of Afro-Latinos is not subsumed and made invisible within a simple count of persons of Hispanic origin.  In contrast, the proposed census reform will hinder an ability to collect the statistical data that concretely demonstrates the subordinated status of Afro-Latinos that is distinctive from broader Hispanic ethnic groups.  Because census racial data is principally used to enforce the civil rights mandates against discrimination in employment, in the sale and rental of homes and in the allocation of mortgages, it would be a disservice to this country’s pursuit of racial equality to institute a census change that would mask the civil rights harms perpetrated against Latinos with visible African ancestry.

Why then is the Census Bureau considering the reformulation of Hispanic ancestry into a racial category?  The proposed reform arises from the fact that in the 2010 census like many prior census years, an average of 36% of Latinos chose the “Some Other Race” racial option, despite the ability to select a specific racial category after indicating their Hispanic ethnic origin.  Because non-Latinos only select the “Some Other Race” option at approximately a 3% rate, it is presumed that unique “Latino” perspectives about racial identity cause the difference.  To be precise, the frequent explanation for the 36% Latino rate of selecting “Some Other Race” is considered to be the Latino cultural inability to view race in binary black and white terms and a Latino preference for expressing racial mixture.  What this presumed explanation obscures is the greater extent to which Latinos actually do choose specific racial categories and how.

For instance, if cultural identities rooted in racial mixture were the primary driving force for the “Some Other Race” Latino selection phenomenon, then one would expect to see more Latinos exercising the census questionnaire option to “mark one or more boxes.”  Instead, only six percent of Latinos on the 2010 census chose to select “two or more races.”  Indeed, the racial category of choice for Latinos on the 2010 census and census forms from prior decades has been the white racial category at a rate of 53 percent.  Such a pattern suggests that Latino census responses are not primarily a consequence of a particular Latino identification with racial mixture.

When survey instruments such as the 2003 New Immigrant Survey omit a “Some Other Race” option, Latino immigrants overwhelmingly select the white racial category at a rate of 79% regardless of what their actual skin color is.  And it is this preference for whiteness that is a more accurate reflection of any presumed “Latino” cultural expression on the census form.  Indeed, census data from Latin American countries show the same proclivity for the white racial category regardless of actual skin color in response to the Latin American disdain for African and indigenous ancestry.  Once Latin American immigrants become “Americanized” in the United States along with their U.S. born descendants, the shift to the ambiguity of  a “Some Other Race” option may very well reflect not only the sense of exclusion from a U.S. category of whiteness that stigmatizes Latino ancestry, but also a preference for distancing oneself from U.S. blackness.  For instance, the New Immigrant Study also found that Latinos who were most integrated into U.S. society were more likely than recent immigrants to completely opt out of a specific racial category despite the ability to select multiple racial categories to express racial mixture.  In short, while interpreting Latino census responses may be a complex matter, the complexity will not necessarily be appropriately resolved with the proposed census reform of making “Hispanic” a racial category.

Thus far, the empirical data demonstrates that Latinos do have racial identities separate and apart from their national origin and pan-ethnic Latino identities, and that the “Some Other Race” phenomenon is not a consequence of incomprehension of the racial categories or a preference for the expression of racial mixture.  Latin American census experiences suggest that the “Some Other Race” selection may instead be an outgrowth of the preference for whiteness and its companion disdain for indigeneity and blackness.  U.S. Census Bureau officials should reject the proposed reform lest the Hispanic racial category change become another mechanism for refusing to officially acknowledge indigenous and African ancestry within the Latino community.  It would be a shame to facilitate the invisibility of indigenous and Afro-Latinos in the United States, at the very moment that indigenous and Afro-Latino communities in Latin America itself are gaining recognition and demanding social inclusion.

Tanya Katerí Hernández is a professor at Fordham Law School and author of “Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law, and the New Civil Rights Response” Cambridge University Press,