Should ‘Latino’ Be a Race on the Census?
Few questions cause as much existential angst among Latino intellectuals as this one. The Latino origin question was added to the Census in such a hurry back in 1970, that little thought was likely given to how it would fold into the existing racial categories at the time. It has remained a separate question ever since; thus was born the ubiquitous phrase “Latino (or Hispanic) can be of any race.” It has been stated so often that it has become more of a platitude than a validated scientific fact. Kudos should be given to the Census Bureau for finally addressing this issue. Even if nothing changes in the Census, just considering the question forces us into a deeper conversation about identity in general. Because in order to answer the question of whether or not Latino should be a race, one must first answer a more fundamental question: what IS race?
Perhaps it would be easier to start with what race isn’t. There is no biological or genetic basis for race. The full argument supporting this assertion is beyond the scope of this commentary so we will just have to accept that as truth for now. So what is race? Race is a social construct, which is fancy academic speak for simply being made up. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have meaning just because it is made up. We infuse numerous social constructs with meaning. However, it does create a challenge for demographers to determine what society considers a race and what it doesn’t. The key is looking at the context in which it is used.
In early 2013 the California Department of Finance released a study projecting California racial demographics for several decades to come. This study became widely reported because one of its main conclusions was that, in the most populous state, Latinos would outnumber every other racial group including whites sometime in 2014. I found this curious because the study was supposedly based on Census data and yet Census data is not collected in this way. In other words, how do you compare the number of Latinos to say the number of whites, when, according to the Census, Latinos can be white themselves? After reviewing this study I found the answer to be quite simple: you manipulate the data.
The California Department of Finance made two key changes to Census data. First, they created a multiracial category by counting anyone that marked two or more boxes as mixed race and not as members of their constituent groups. For example, if someone marked white AND black they would be counted as neither and instead be counted as mixed race. Then, they subtracted anyone that marked Latino from their chosen racial group and counted them in a Latino racial category only. These two changes served to reduce the numbers of all racial groups and boost the number of Latinos as a percent of the population. It is little wonder then that Latinos became a plurality of Californians.
We may want to know how Latinos feel about this methodology. Were we to ask the major Latino organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), the National Council of La Raza, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), or the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC’s), it would appear as though this is acceptable since none of them mounted a protest in opposition to the study. Could it be they simply weren’t aware the study’s methodology? Or perhaps they favored the study’s findings since higher numbers translate into greater political clout. As a minimum, their silence suggests concurrence.
It’s a shame the California Department of Finance made a choice to “racialize” Latinos by manipulating data the way they did. Basic science teaches that the only valid way to report data is in a manner consistent with how it is collected. Before we choose to condemn them too harshly for their actions, it should be noted that this is a very common practice among agencies and researchers. But can we fault them for trying if it is actually the Census that is out of sync with society’s construction of race? If the Census misses the target of reflecting social constructs, then it risks producing erroneous data at best and invites data manipulation at worst.
The Census Bureau is testing ideas to evaluate and hopefully eliminate this discontinuity. The 2010 Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (or AQE) is telling on many points. Among the many changes tested, probably the most significant was asking “what would happen if the aforementioned Latino question were combined with the race question?” Or in other words, what if Latino became a race? One thing that didn’t happen was a decrease in Latinos compared to the control group (although the control group was a few points below the full Census count). But interestingly there was also a decrease in the item non-response rate, a decrease in the use of the “some other race” category, and a decrease in the white population since so many Latinos stopped marking white. In summary, it appears as though Latinos have found their “racial home” on the Census.
But something unanticipated also happened. When Latino was incorporated into the race question it inherited the pre-existing “mark one or more” option. Currently, the Latino origin question does not permit multiple responses. Mixed Latino and non-Latino responses are counted as Latino only and multiple Latino responses are randomly assigned to only one category. However, when given the chance, about 20% to 25% of Latinos marked two or more races. Oftentimes, the multiracial population is thought of consisting primarily of either mixed black and white people or mixed Asian and white people, but these data showed that people with mixed Latino and non-Latino identities outnumbered all the other mixed groups combined.
While these revelations about the Latino community are very encouraging, they are not without their side effects. Again, consider the California Department of Finance. If Latino were a race on the Census, then there would be no need to “racialize” Latinos by subtracting their numbers from whites, blacks, multiracials, etc. However, recall the California Department of Finance placed anyone that marked two or more races in a separate multiracial category. That means the 20% to 25% of Latinos marking two or more races will no longer be counted as Latino. Or to put it another way, the headlines will declare “Latinos cease to be a plurality of California until 2034.”
Now this poses an interesting scenario. Will the California Department of Finance change its methodology under pressure from Latinos to maintain Latino numbers? Or will the multiracial community push back against Latinos to receive its own fair share of the count? Or perhaps instead this will become an opportunity for the Latino community and the mixed race community to work together to teach society about the complexity of identity and the ability of bridging communities in the pursuit of shared interests.
Should Latino remain its own question apart from race, we should all be able to agree on implementing a change to count mixed Latino and non-Latino origin. The 2010 AQE has revealed a significant level of mixed Latino identity never measured before. Perhaps if it were better known how integrated Latinos are into society, at the most fundamental levels of self and family, then perhaps there would be greater acceptance and understanding of Latinos overall.
Thomas Lopez is the president of Multiracial Americans of Southern California, a non-profit corporation dedicated to support and advocacy for the multiracial community. Beside his volunteer work, Mr. Lopez works full time as a mechanical engineer in the medical device industry. To learn more about MASC visit macsite.org or contact Mr. Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org.