News & Politics

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.

Enter Glenn Beck and a cabal of conservative firebrands who are egging Americans on to ignore the census race question.

Latino advocates and legal scholars suspiciously question the timing of the post-racial and colorblind idealism sweeping America.

“At the precise historical moment when race has become a tool for undoing racism and when the non-white population seems finally poised to surpass the white group, color blindness has emerged as a new racial ideology,” observes Ian Haney Lopez, a University of California law professor of mixed heritage.  “Color-blind adherents wield it mainly to forestall any recognition of, or response to, racism's deep and continuing legacy. In the context of Latino demographics and racial counting, however, its partisans see in color blindness a means of obscuring the rapidly approaching shift from a white-majority to a white-minority country.”

A provocation: 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?

Put bluntly, the 2010 and future census efforts need to count Latinos more accurately, and to upgrade the crude tools of its architects. This is not just academic question; it rouses our national self-awareness and safeguards our democratic integrity, by forcing us to face our demographic future with eyes wide open.

Rich Benjamin is the author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.
He is senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank Demos and sits on the board of the Roosevelt Institution. His commentary is featured on NPR and Fox Radio, and in newspapers nationwide.
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