Op-Ed: Should ‘Latino’ Be a Race Option in the Census?
I was 14 years-old at the doctor’s office the first time I can remember filling out a form asking for information about my race and ethnicity.
I asked my mom what my race was and she responded, “Mexican.” Except there was no box for “Mexican.” I told her I could only choose “Native American, Asian, African American, or White.” She told me to check the “White” box. Except, we aren’t white. I didn’t think much of it when I was a child, but over time, as I grew older and more conscious of my racial experiences in the United States, checking the “White” box felt inaccurate, even wrong.
Some official government forms now also include an option for “Other,” which is the box I have checked for questions about my race for many years. But other forms, like the mortgage application I filled out a couple of years ago, did not have an option for “Other.” I was forced to pick from one of the choices, none of which describe how I see my own racial identity. This time I selected “Native American,” which also didn’t feel accurate since the definition of “Native American” is often reserved for North American indigenous people belonging to a tribe.
Recently, the Biden administration proposed adding “Hispanic or Latino” as a race category in the 2030 U.S. Census. For someone like me, who is not a white, Black, or Asian Latino, and who has indigenous roots, but didn’t grow up in an indigenous community, and has not experienced the same racial experience as those who have, this is a welcomed change.
None of the other options for race have ever matched my personal experience with race. By choosing “other” I feel as though I am othering myself. I am quite literally identifying as an “other.” I find it intentional that while Latinos are not the only ethnicity in the United States, we are the only ethnicity that is singled out in the census. I don’t want to be described by what I am not, but rather by what I am. To me, Latino does feel like my racial identity. When people express racist behavior toward Latinos, they don’t do it because they think of us as ethnically different, but because they think of us as racially different, as racially inferior.
I recognize the shortcomings of viewing Latino as a single race when within the community there is so much diversity of skin color and experiences. Especially when Black and Indigenous Latinos are often erased and marginalized by our own community. The truth is that our community cannot fit in a box. We are too beautiful, big, and powerful to be contained. However, for purposes of the U.S. Census, I do believe that counting “Latino” as a race would simplify the process of counting our community — all of us.
There has long been a debate about how to count people with origins, or whose family, or ancestors, have origins in Latin America, and, or Spanish-speaking countries. It’s widely accepted that Latino should be considered an ethnicity, since we share a common culture, but that it should not be viewed as a race.
However, race is socially constructed, meaning we as a society instill meaning into it. It is not biological. For example, the number of race categories has changed over time to reflect how different groups of people view themselves, or how society views them. Race is not set in stone.
From 1888 to 1924, the number of racial categories changed from sixty-three to twenty-nine. In the 1930 U.S. Census, “Mexican” was an option for race. I discuss more of these categories and how and why they were used in my book, “You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation.” Mexican elites and activists fought to have us labeled as white, perhaps as a form of protection, since it was rumored that census data was used to deport millions of Mexicans during the Great Depression. For the next fifty years, Mexicans, along with other Latinos, were mostly folded into the “White” category. It wasn’t until the 1980 U.S. Census that the question, “Is this person of Spanish/Hispanic origin or descent,” was added to the short form questionnaire. I believe fighting to have this question included in the U.S. Census was our community’s way of asserting that most of us aren’t white. We have our own unique identity.
While it is wildly imperfect to hold all Latinos in a single racial box, the community has signaled that we want to move in this direction. The Census Bureau reported that in the 2000 U.S. Census of those who identified as Hispanic, 48% selected “white” as their race, and 42% selected “some other race.” In the 2020 census, a similar number of Latinos chose “some other race,” but only 20% selected “White,” and another 30% selected two or more racial groups.
The Latino identity is very complex, and at times complicated. Each of us has our own relationship with the label. How we chose to wear the label in the world doesn’t need to change because we chose the box on a census form. But census data is critically important for things like drawing legislative districts, determining the number of Congressional seats, which is really important for how and who represents us in Congress. The government also uses this data to determine how it distributes billions of dollars in federal funds to communities around the country.
Because Latino hasn’t been considered a race category, how accurately, or rather how inaccurately we have been counted has been hurtful to the community. These categorizations also impact how data is collected outside the federal government. For example, most police departments are required to report the race of victims in officer-involved shootings, but they do not have to report ethnicity, and so we don’t have an accurate picture of just how many Latinos have been affected by this issue.
The great news is that a “Latino” box would be in addition to the other boxes that already exist and respondents of the census can choose more than one box. The recent proposal also includes expanding the definition of “American Indian or Alaska Native,” to include, “all individuals who identify with any of the original peoples of North, Central, and South America.”
If the proposal is adopted, I’ll be checking both the “Latino” and “American Indian” box in the next U.S. Census.
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