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Los Angeles Times

For Millions Of Latinos, Race Is A Flexible Concept

The Rigid Labels Used By The Census Bureau Often Don't Fit The Beliefs Of Their Ancestral Cultures

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

March 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON -- James Jennings, professor of political science and urban studies at Tufts University near Boston, uses his birth certificate to teach students a lesson about statistics, race and ethnicity.

Born to a Latino mother and an African American father in New York City more than 50 years ago, Jennings is identified on his birth certificate as "white," as are his parents.

"I keep it as a great teaching tool to show that official numbers, hard data, are sometimes quite inaccurate," said Jennings, who identifies as black and Latino.

Recent census estimates for 2001 were widely reported as showing that Latinos have overtaken blacks as the nation's largest minority group, but experts say that may not be the case. The African ancestry of Latinos is often underreported in demographic head counts, according to academic researchers. A statistical modification by the Census Bureau in producing the estimates may have skewed matters even more.

"I don't think you can say categorically that Latinos have surpassed blacks," said Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Urban Institute think tank. "It depends on how you choose to define black Hispanics."

Demographers classify Latinos as an ethnic group, not a race. On the 2000 census form, respondents were given the option of choosing multiple ethnic and racial categories. Thus, people who identified their ethnicity as Latino could also indicate a racial background, choosing among a range of options. Because many Latinos are of mixed racial ancestry, they do not fit easily into the rigidly defined racial categories used throughout most of U.S. history.

Those distinctions are further blurred for millions of Latinos whose ancestral cultures treat race as a flexible concept, social scientists say. And in the United States, some Latinos who also have African heritage may describe themselves as "white" because they fear the discrimination that comes with being identified as black. In this country, many people believe that any quantity of African ancestry makes a person black, but in Latin America it's not quite like that. "In Latin America, the 'one drop rule' doesn't work at all," said Silvia Pedraza, a University of Michigan sociologist. "The way people define race is by appearance. If you came out looking white, you are white -- especially if you have money. There is a saying: 'Money bleaches.' "

Another popular Latin saying carries a slightly different spin: "Y tu abuela donde esta" means "Where are you keeping Grandma?" and suggests that most people have some African heritage.

These proverbs, sardonically implying that whiteness is preferred, reflect a Latin American strain of racism. In daily life, however, the ambiguity allows for a broad menu of racial identifications. Entertainer Vanessa Williams, New York Yankees star Derek Jeter and even civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois -- all of whom are thought of as black in the United States -- likely would be considered "white" in most Latin countries.

State-level data from the 2000 census, compiled by the Inter-University Program for Latino Research at the University of Notre Dame, reveal baffling differences in how Latinos identify racially.

In Texas, 61% of Latinos of Mexican origin said they were white, compared with only 40% in California. In Florida, 92% of Cubans identified as white, compared with 68% in California. In both states a low percentage of Cubans said they were black.

"Race is a subjective category," said Joel Perlmann, a senior scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College who focuses on multiracial issues. "The real problem is the slipperiness of the concept of race for the millions of people who have chosen not to accept the categories being offered."

For Jennings, the professor whose birth certificate says he is white, the initial designation of race was made by someone he never met, a staff person filling out forms at the New York hospital where he was born.

As Jennings grew up, he found similarities between his father's African American heritage and his mother's Puerto Rican culture -- and affirmed both.

"I just felt I didn't have to respond to the separations people make," Jennings said. "I choose black, and I always add Latino. Sorry, but I'm not going to deny either my mother or my father."

For Marta Cruz-Janzen, establishing a racial identity was a painful journey that continued into adulthood. She was 17 when she arrived in the Bronx in the 1960s, a dark-skinned young woman full of ambition.

"Even though I was an honor student in my school in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in New York I was put in the remedial program," Cruz-Janzen said.

She realized that others were judging her potential on the basis of her skin color and her ethnicity. "I remember I started getting advice from people. Some said, 'Emphasize the fact that you are a Latina,' " she recalled.

At other times, "I felt like I was being pushed to the black side," Cruz-Janzen said. "But then I would go to the African American groups and they would say I was not black enough." Now an education professor at Florida Atlantic University, Cruz-Janzen has coined a term to describe herself: Latinegra -- black Latina. She said she knows others like her who downplay their blackness.

Cruz-Janzen selected "some other race" to describe herself in the 2000 census. "I did not feel any of the racial choices was appropriate for me," she explained.

National 2000 census figures captured a deep ambivalence about race among Latinos. Nearly 15 million -- 42% of the total -- declined to identify themselves as white, black or any specific race and instead picked "some other race," a relatively new category.

That racial ambiguity was overridden by a statistical "modification" in the 2001 population estimates released in January, the same figures cited as showing that Latinos are more numerous than blacks.

The government's protocol for population estimates required the Census Bureau to assign Latinos who described themselves as "some other race" to a conventional category. As a rough guide, they used the proportion of Latinos who had indicated they were white or black in the 2000 census and extrapolated those figures to come up with a final estimate. While hundreds of thousands were placed in the "black or African American" column, more than 10 million were classified as "white."

"There is an interesting political question about the arbitrariness of the census bureaucrats in assigning most Latinos who said they were 'some other race' to the white category," said William Darity, an economist at the University of North Carolina.

Census officials say they were far from arbitrary, using standard statistical methods to make the changes. Following publication of the numbers, census officials cautioned against comparing estimates of the Latino and black populations.

The 2001 estimates showed that in the United States there were 37 million Latinos and 36.2 million blacks. But, counting people who claimed more than one race, there were 37.7 million African Americans. While these estimates may not capture the turning point, there is broad agreement that the rapidly growing Latino population will be larger in the long run.

If there's an ideal population for social scientists studying issues of race and Latinos, Puerto Ricans could well be that group. More than 3.4 million live in the U.S. and more than 3.8 million on the island, a U.S. commonwealth. Both groups are surveyed by the Census Bureau, yielding a wealth of data. Those living here are counted in U.S. population totals.

Puerto Ricans have long described themselves as a mixed people, with Spanish, African and native heritage. The 2000 census marked the first time in more than 30 years Puerto Ricans on the island were asked to identify themselves racially.

Nearly 81% of island residents classified themselves as white, meaning Puerto Rico would be "whiter" than the U.S., where about 75% of the population identified itself as white. Puerto Ricans living in the mainland U.S. self-identified much differently. Forty-six percent said they were white, while 47% chose "some other race."

"The population here on the island describes itself as 'whiter' than it has ever been historically, while [in the U.S.] they convert into 'some other race,' " said Jorge Duany, a University of Puerto Rico anthropologist.

The figures touched off a debate in Puerto Rico about race, with some expressing concerns that the island may be turning its back on its African heritage.

"These incredible statistics make no sense because they do not correspond with even a simple look at the population," said sociologist Palmira Rios, who is black, and a member of the Puerto Rican civil rights commission. "They are, on the other hand, consistent with a historical pattern of denying the presence of Africa in Puerto Rico."

If black Latinos do not identify as such, one consequence may well be that problems of discrimination against them will never be confronted, she said.

Denial is also at work among Latinos in the mainland U.S., Rios added. . "All Latin American countries have Afro-Latin populations," she said. "Being Latino and of African heritage are not mutually exclusive."

It remains to be seen whether Latinos will transform the racial divide in America.

"Around the edges it is very fuzzy," said Passel, the demographer from the Urban Institute. "My own sense of this as we go into the future is that it is going to get less clear."

Some see a promising development for the U.S. in racial ambivalence. "A lot of us would argue that it could be a very healthy thing," said Perlmann, the Levy Institute scholar.

"The 'one drop rule' has not been the legacy of race relations, which we want to take pride in in this country," Perlmann added. "Anything that confuses and muddles up those clear-cut categories and gives people a sense of the rich possibilities of intermingling is probably healthy."

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