The U.S. Census is considering whether to make "Hispanic" a combined race and ethnic category in the next 2020 Census.

The U.S. Census is considering whether to make “Hispanic” a combined race and ethnic category in the next 2020 Census. (Photo/Getty Images)

Census might make “Hispanic” a race

America might be a “melting pot,” but identification – as an individual and as a group – matters, according to political scientist Angelo Falcon.  He is urging Latino civil rights groups, academics, and Hispanics to weigh in on whether the Census changes the way Latinos identify themselves in the 2020 Census.

“We’re still debating what it means to be Latino – we’re all over the place as a community, and people have many different positions on this stuff,” says Falcon, who is the founder and president of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP).  “I’m trying to make sure Latinos understand that census issues are an ongoing process, and changes in the Census don’t come about just by number-crunching; it is also a political process.  So it’s important Latinos are in there, in the discussions.”

The Census Bureau is considering whether to make “Hispanic” a racial instead of an ethnic category.  One of the reasons this is being considered is that the Census says it is Latinos who predominantly fill the “some other race” category or leave the race question blank.  In the 2010 Census, for example, the Census reports that 7.1 percent of households picked “some other race”, and the majority of these households were Latino.

In 2010, the Census sent out alternative questionnaires to half a million households, including a significant number of Latino families, which gave respondents a chance to mark Hispanic as a combined race and origin category.  In those forms, says Census officials, the “some other race” answer went down .2 percent, compared to the general questionnaire, compared to 7.1 percent in the general Census form.

“Some respondents view their Hispanic origin as a race,” said Nicholas Jones, from the U.S. Census, in a Washington D.C. in a press conference several months ago.  Census officials also said the question of changing the forms came after studying Latino responses in different Census focus groups on the issue of racial and ethnic identification.

Fordham University law professor Tanya Hernandez, author of the new book “Racial Subordination in Latin America,” is opposed to the idea of joining race and ethnicity as a “Hispanic” category, especially if it eliminates existing racial categories, since she believes this would have negative, real-world consequences.

“Census data is used in very important ways, for example to monitor compliance regarding civil rights and racial disparities,” Hernandez states.  “To understand why a Latino, Asian and white person can have the same income profile but still have different access to a mortgage, for example, you need to examine racial categories,” Hernandez explains, saying  many Latinos still experience discrimination by skin tone.

Hernandez also says she does not think there is anything wrong with putting “other” as a racial category since it is not a large number of Latinos who do.  “The vast majority of Latinos do pick a specific racial identifier, but for some Latinos, especially those with indigenous ancestry, the ‘some other race’  is a more useful category,” she says.

Patricia Foxen, Deputy Director of Research for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), says that while NCLR does not have a position on any potential changes, “what is important is to talk about the actual question that would be on the form, and make sure Latinos can self-identify with the categories.”  Foxen says even if “Latino” or “Hispanic” were to become a race/ethnicity, it is important to have the ability to mark “black Latino” or “white Latino” and also have the chance to mark one’s national origin – say Mexico, or Puerto Rico.

“We use Census data all the time, and we use it to identify racial and ethnic disparities in education, health and wealth-building,” adds NCLR’s Foxen.  She says it is also important to keep a certain amount of continuity in the census forms to be able to study changes over different decades. “We’re adapting to changing demographics, but it’s important to keep continuity,” she says.

Falcon says he is not taking sides on whether the Census should change “Hispanic” to a race/ethnicity categorization. But as a member of the Census’ National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, he says it is important that Latinos get involved in the conversation on the proposed changes.  Falcon says Latino groups will study Census focus group information, for example, and he is planning a “summit” where he is inviting Latino academics, civil rights groups, and Census officials to discuss the issues.

“I want to make sure Latinos who have questions get their issues answered,” Falcon says.  “The current classifications of “race” in the Census are a jumble anyway – there are ethnic groups, nations, tribes – how did that happen?  It’s not all scientific – it is also political.”

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