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The Census Bureau And The Birth Of A 'Latino Race'
January 4, 2005
THE CENSUS BUREAU, preparing for the census in 2010, recently tried to eliminate the "some other race" option on its forms. From the bureau's perspective, too many people erroneously placed themselves in this group.
But at the instigation of a Latino congressman from New York, Jose E. Serrano, Congress barred the move by conditioning funding for the census on the retention of the "other race" category. Serrano, a Democrat, claimed a victory for "millions of American Latinos." Latino civic organizations seem to agree, with both Mexican American and Puerto Rican civil rights groups praising his actions.
What's behind the Census Bureau seeking suddenly to drop the "other race" option, a fixture of every census since 1910? And why should Latinos see retaining this option as a victory? The answers touch on the latest wrinkles in the politics of race and demography in the United States.
First, some background: Historically, "other race" served as a catchall - a category for people who did not fit easily into the official census races, which today are white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander and Native American. For the bureau, "other race" indicates not a discrete population group but an accounting trick. In tabulating racial populations, the "other race" numbers are simply reallocated to the official categories, and data on the characteristics of this population are not compiled.
This made statistical sense so long as those denominated "other" represented a small number and a miscellaneous mixture of racial outliers, not a distinct social group.
But in 1980 the Census Bureau introduced two changes that completely transformed the nature of this category: First, it added to its race question a companion item, inquiring of all Americans whether they were ethnically "Hispanic."
Second, it moved to a system of racial self-reporting. Instead of census enumerators assigning racial identities, the bureau asked every person filling out census forms to identify his or her own race.
Suddenly, the "other race" population exploded, increasing tenfold. And 97 percent of those claiming to be "some other race" also identified themselves as "Hispanic."
Creating a new race category wasn't what the bureau had in mind. In 1990 and 2000, in hopes of reducing the number of Latinos identifying as "other," it tried to convey more clearly that its ethnicity and race questions should be answered independently. But to no avail.
Today, about 6 percent of Americans, or more than 1 in 20, count themselves as "some other race," and the overwhelming majority of them are Latinos. Like it or not, nearly half of the Latino population considers itself a race.
That means, of course, that many Latinos still see themselves as members of the bureau's usual racial categories.
According to Brown University Professor John Logan's analysis of the census and survey data, Latinos generally divide themselves into three racial camps. There are black Latinos, who identify as Latino ethnically and as black racially. This group, steady at just below 3 percent of the Latino population since 1980, numbers nearly 1 million in the United States.
Next come white Latinos, who grew from 9 million in 1980 to just shy of 18 million in 2000. This doubling did not, however, keep pace with the growth of the Latino population as a whole. The proportion of Latinos claiming to be white has steadily declined, from 64 percent in 1980 to just below 50 percent in 2000.
Then there are people Logan calls "Latino Hispanics," who identify as "Hispanic" on the ethnicity question and as "other" on the race item. This population has steadily gained among all Latinos, from 34 percent in 1980 to nearly 47 percent in 2000.
The bureau hasn't said much publicly about this trend, or about why it sought to do away with the "other race" category. It claims to be concerned primarily with the rising number of people opting out of its official categories. But one can't help but ponder deeper implications.
Certainly the notion of a new race emphasizes the fact that such categories primarily reflect social ideas and practices, not natural, immutable divisions among humans. And the Latino community's insistence on being considered a race also challenges the conservative mantra that the United States no longer needs such categories because it is moving quickly toward race blindness.
One thing is sure: The Census Bureau betrays its mission of accurately measuring life in the United States - including our success in transcending racial divisions - when rather than grappling with the sociological reality of an emerging Latino race it attempts instead to bury the evidence by jettisoning the "other race" category. Serrano should be applauded for pre-empting this strategy, but retaining the "other race" option on census forms is only a partial response.
The bureau should study and publish data on people who consider themselves members of a Latino race. This means gathering the same sort of information collected about the other races: basic population numbers on age, gender, family size and geographical location, as well as statistics on educational attainment, homeownership, income levels and so on.
The census would not be creating this group, as some people will surely charge, but only doing its job of portraying America as it actually is. After all, those of us who see ourselves as members of a Latino race number nearly 17 million - and counting.
Ian Haney Lopez, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote "Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice." This appeared in the Los Angeles Times.