The U.S. Census and Latinos’ Conceptions of Race
posted by Solangel Maldonado
My parents were filling out the U.S. Census a few nights ago when they reached a question that stumped them both—the race question. The Census requires that individuals “answer BOTH Question 8 about Hispanic origin and Question 9 about race” and states that for purposes of the 2010 Census, “Hispanic origins are not races.”
Question 8 asks:
Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?
–No, not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin
–Yes, Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano
–Yes, Puerto Rican
–Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin –Print origin, for example, Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadorian, Spaniard, and so on.
Question 9 asks:
What is Person 1’s race?
–Black, African Am., or Negro
–American Indian or Alaska Native –Print name of enrolled or principal tribe.
–Guamanian or Chamorro
–Other Pacific Islander
–Some other race – Print race.
My parents had no difficulty answering Question 8. They are both from the Dominican Republic so they checked “Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” and printed “Dominican” in the box provided. They did not know how to respond to Question 9, however. My father, whose phenotype is that of a light-skinned Black man, wanted to select “White” because he equates Black with African-American. My mother wanted to select “Black” because, in her view, “White” refers to Caucasian and, although her grandfather was a Spaniard, her grandmother was of African descent. Confused, my parents asked their four adult daughters, all of whom were born and raised in the U.S., how we self-identified in the Census. Three of us checked “Black” and one checked both “Black” and “White.” My father finally agreed to check “Black,” not because he identifies as such, but because there were no other “adequate choices.” When I asked him what race he would have selected had it been listed, he responded “Latino.” For him, and many other Latinos, his race is not White, Black, or American Indian, but Latino—the result of a mixing of European (mostly Spaniard), African (brought as slaves to the Americas), and the indigenous people of the Americas (for example, Taino, Aztec, Mayan, etc.)
My parents’ frustration with the Census’ race question is not unique. I informally surveyed my Latino friends and relatives and found that members of the same family checked different boxes in Question 9—for example, one person checked “White,” while her full-blood sibling checked “Black.” One Latina identified as White, Black, and Taino. Others printed “Puerto Rican,” “Dominican,” or “Mexican” in both Questions 8 and 9 even though the instructions state that, for purposes of the Census, Hispanic origin is not a race. As one woman wrote, “I don’t identify with the choices they had” so she refused to select any of the racial categories provided in Question 9.
These responses reinforce what Latino scholars have known for decades—that Latinos do not subscribe to U.S. conceptions of race. The U.S. has historically treated race as biologically determined. This understanding is reflected in the “one-drop” rule which defined an individual with one drop of Black blood as Black regardless of the amount of white blood. For example, until 1960, Virginia law provided that “every person in whom there is ascertainable any Negro blood shall be deemed and taken to be a colored person.” Louisiana law was more precise. It provided that a person with 1/32nd Black blood was Black. Under this conception, phenotype was deemed irrelevant when assigning racial classifications. The Kentucky Supreme Court held in 1911 that a person with 1/16th Negro blood was Black even though he was as “fair as persons of the white race.”
Latinos do not believe that race is determined by ancestry. In 2000, the U.S. Census asked Puerto Ricans on the island the same race questions that are being asked in the 2010 Census, and 80% selected “White.” This was a surprise to many Americans because the majority of Puerto Ricans have Spanish, African, and Taino ancestors. Thus, under U.S definitions of race, most Puerto Ricans are Black or, at least, not White. However, in Latin-America, race is based on an individual’s phenotype—skin color, hair texture, and facial features. It is not rare for full-blood siblings to be classified as of different races. Furthermore, race is often seen as a continuum and racial categories are fluid and influenced by class and education. In fact, a person’s racial designation can change during his lifetime based on social mobility, including marriage.
In the Dominican Republic, the “cedula,” the government issued identification card, states the cardholder’s height, eye color, and sex, just like in the U.S. In addition, it includes the person’s race. However, the choices are not merely Black or White, but include “trigueño” (wheat-colored and may specify, light or dark), “indio” (the literal translation is “Indian” but in this context it refers to a person with caramel or tan skin color, similar to that of persons of aboriginal descent, with straight, silky hair), “moreno” (dark skinned but with a variety of African or European features and hair textures), and many others. Racial categorizations also depend to a large extent on the opinion of the beholder. For example, my father’s race is listed as “Blanco” (White) on his cedula because that is what the government officer selected based on his quick glance. Another officer could have just as easily selected indio, trigueño, or another term.
Given that Latinos’ conceptions of race differ significantly from those commonly held in the U.S., it is not surprising that Latinos are confused by (or refuse to answer) Census questions that fail to provide choices with which Latinos identify.