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Racial Questions Rock the Census

Should the US stop tracking its inhabitants' race, as the colorblind movement would have? Or should we endeavor to track race more comprehensively and nimbly?

If you have Central or Latin American blood coursing through your veins, imagine the confusion confronting you.

On your 2010 Census form, should you just check off “Hispanic”?  Or if the shoe fits, why not the more precise “Mexican-American” option? Or how about writing something in: chicano, mestizo, indio, moreno, tejano, or trigueno? Egad, the Census form does not capture the rich complexions, cultures, or ancestry that you embody.

How do we count America’s largest racial minority, so-called “Latinos”?

This question is more than just a conversation set piece for pointy-headed social scientists.  Rather, it imparts dramatic consequences for future elections, for those nettlesome culture wars, and for the very shaping of public policy and its distribution of goodies.

Counting what most Americans understand as the “Latino” population has always been politically fraught and conceptually squishy.

Before 1924, the U.S. government officially held that all people of Central and Latin American origin were “white,” even though whites and blacks viewed them as racial mongrels.

In 1924, as nativism, Eugenics, and the Klan flourished, Congress decided to curb Mexican migration, effectively creating the modern border patrol. In that anti-immigration climate, the Census Bureau began classifying Mexicans as a distinct “non-white” race during the next count, 1930.

During the 1940 count, however, the Bureau reversed course. The executive branch, eager to secure alliances as it entered World War II, and subject to intense lobbying by Mexican Americans and the Mexican government, decided to classify Mexican Americans as “white.” As of 1950, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans were classified as “white,” unless they “appeared” to be “definitely ... Negro, Indian, or some other race.”

In 1980, things changed yet again. The 1980 census was the first to categorize “Hispanic” as an ethnicity and not a race.  Also, the 1980 Census required respondents to categorize themselves ethnically and racially. The new classification of Hispanic origin and ethnicity, in addition to the new system of self-reporting, produced dramatic changes in the Latino count.

International relations, domestic politics, homegrown xenophobia, and racial friction: All directly shaped how Latinos have been racially categorized and counted throughout our history.

Now enter the black Hispanics, who identify ethnically as Latino and racially as black. Enter the white Hispanics, who identify ethnically as Latino and racially as white.  And enter the Latino-Latinos, who identify ethnically and racially as “Hispanic.”

Why care? The racial differences among Latinos are like a fascinating control device in a grand experiment, exposing as they do the significance of race in American life. In 2000, for example, the unemployment rate was 8 percent for white Latinos, 9.5 percent for Latino Latinos, and 12.3 percent for black Latinos, which topped the unemployment rate even for black Americans generally, 11 percent. And poverty?  Less than a quarter of white Latinos lived below the poverty line, while nearly a third of black Latinos did.

Income, employment, poverty, segregation: Pick your metric, racial differences among Latinos often impact their life chances, like a palette swatch ranging from light (better off) all the way to dark (less so) with beige (Latino-Latino) in between.

Not only do confusing racial categories and intractable inequality complicate matters, so does a “color-blind” political outlook, championed through prominent and widespread calls to banish race from the Census and from all government data and decision-making.

Chief Justice John Roberts denounced the “sordid business” of “divvying us up by race” in a landmark 2007 school de-segregation majority ruling. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” the chief judge scolded.

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