“His­panic/Latino” is not a race, Cen­sus Bureau

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Esther J. Cepeda

he U.S. Cen­sus Bureau has been ex­per­i­ment­ing with al­ter­nate ver­sions of the race and eth­nic­ity sec­tion of its Na­tional Con­tent Test Re­search Study. The bureau hopes that by the next cen­sus in 2020, it can more ac­cu­rately tally His­pan­ics and other newly prom­i­nent mi­nor­ity groups.

Ba­si­cally, the bureau found in its re­cently re­leased 2015 study that if the for­mat of the iden­tity prompt com­bines race and eth­nic­ity into a sin­gle ques­tion, it re­sults in more ac­cu­rate re­port­ing and dra­mat­i­cally lower non­re­sponses com­pared to the 2010 style. In the 2010 it­er­a­tion, re­spon­dents were first asked to an­swer whether they were of His­panic, Latino or Span­ish ori­gin and then asked to spec­ify their race.

The pro­posal for a new, com­bined ques­tion is quite long, ask­ing: “What is Per­son 1’s race or eth­nic­ity? Mark all boxes that ap­ply AND print eth­nic­i­ties in the spa­ces be­low. You may re­port more than one group.”

A re­spon­dent can then choose from white, His­panic, Latino or Span­ish, black or AfricanAmer­i­can, Asian, Amer­i­can In­dian or Alaska na­tive, Mid­dle Eastern or North African, Na­tive Hawai­ian or Other Pa­cific Is­lan­der or “Some other race or eth­nic­ity.” Then, within each of those cat­e­gories, one can get more spe­cific.

For in­stance, my hus­band would choose the white cat­e­gory and then, if he re­ally wanted to go way back up the fam­ily tree, check off the English and Ir­ish eth­nic­ity boxes.

I would choose the “His­panic, Latino or Span­ish” cat­e­gory and then check off “Mex­i­can or Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can” and also write in “Ecuadorean.”

My teenage sons, as­sum­ing they were in­ter­ested in de­tail­ing ev­ery bit of their an­ces­try to the Cen­sus Bureau (and I can’t imag­ine them ever want­ing to do so), would do all of the above, choos­ing two cat­e­gories and check­ing off four sep­a­rate eth­nic­i­ties.

Whew, it’s kind of tir­ing just think­ing about it, but no one ever promised that fill­ing out the Cen­sus form was go­ing to be easy.

Still, the pro­posed com­bi­na­tion of the race and eth­nic­ity ques­tion has been con­tro­ver­sial to those who track such es­o­ter­ica be­cause it, ef­fec­tively, im­plies that the His­panic/Latino des­ig­na­tion is a race. To be clear: It is not.

His­pan­ics can be of any race — in my own fam­ily we have black His­pan­ics, Asian His­pan­ics and white His­pan­ics.

But even as some stick to the tech­ni­cal­ity of the His­panic des­ig­na­tion not be­ing a race, oth­ers note that this dis­tinc­tion is al­ready mean­ing­less to a large swath of our so­ci­ety.

Ac­cord­ing to Ni­cholas Var­gas, a pro­fes­sor and ex­pert on Latino stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Florida, if the His­panic des­ig­na­tion be­came con­flated with a race as the re­sult of me­dia at­ten­tion to the new for­mat of the ques­tion — or sub­se­quent re­port­ing on the re­sults of the next Cen­sus — then it would be a small price to pay for bet­ter data on how peo­ple iden­tify them­selves.

“It would re­ally be a bet­ter re­flec­tion of how race and eth­nic­ity are or­ga­nized in the U.S. rather than a ma­jor ‘change,’ ” Var­gas told me. “For a large pro­por­tion of peo­ple, this re­flects how they self-iden­tify or how they al­ready ex­pe­ri­ence race. … I don’t see the ques­tion pro­duc­ing any new po­lit­i­cal or cul­tural cat­e­gories.”

And the up­side could be sig­nif­i­cant to those look­ing to break out of the mono­lithic stereo­types as­signed to their races.

Al­ready Asian-Amer­i­can, Pa­cific Is­lan­der and Na­tive Hawai­ian ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions are push­ing for leg­isla­tive changes to how their data are cap­tured and re­ported in or­der to ar­tic­u­late dif­fer­ences in so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus, ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment and health char­ac­ter­is­tics across dif­fer­ent sub­groups.

Sim­i­larly, science is fi­nally be­gin­ning to un­der­stand the dis­tinc­tion in health is­sues and the ef­fec­tive­ness of med­i­cal-out­reach pro­grams with African-Amer­i­cans, U.S.-born Caribbean blacks, and mi­grants to the U.S. from Africa.

Iron­i­cally, as the de­sire by racial and eth­nic groups to get more promi­nence has gained trac­tion, the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump has made the pro­ject to bet­ter iden­tify who is in our coun­try even trick­ier.

Groups that for years wanted vis­i­bil­ity in Cen­sus data, like those with Mid­dle Eastern eth­nic­ity, are won­der­ing if the spot­light would be detri­men­tal in a time when the pres­i­dent stokes fears about non-white ter­ror­ists.

Latino ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions are also wor­ried about what the im­pact of stepped-up im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment ac­tions and de­por­ta­tions will have on Lati­nos’ will­ing­ness to come to the door to an­swer per­sonal ques­tions from gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Only time will tell how pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics could af­fect par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 2020 Cen­sus. For now, iden­tity pol­i­tics may yet in­flu­ence the fi­nal ques­tion word­ing, which must be sub­mit­ted to Congress by April 2018. E-mail Esther J. Cepeda at es­ther­j­cepeda@wash­post.com. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @es­ther­j­cepeda

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