Latinos versus the Census Bureau: When racial categorizations clash

People create races, not nature. Different societies tend to have different systems of racial categorization. Even within the same society, there can be significant changes in racial categorization over time. We can get a sense of this from the fact that U.S. Census Bureau has made changes to the rules for racial classification system in nearly every census.

The guidelines for the 1940 Census (the full data of which was recently released to the public) instructed enumerators that “any mixtures of white and nonwhite blood” should be classified as nonwhite. Additionally, people of “mixed Negro and Indian blood should be reported as Negro” while “other mixtures of nonwhite parentage should be reported according to the race of the father.” These rules only make sense when embedded in the specific U.S. political economy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Today, in post-Civil-Rights-era America, individuals define their own race, not the Census enumerators. Also, in response to lobbying for multiracial categorization, since 2000 the Census Bureau has allowed individuals to select more than one race. In 1940, multiracial categorization in Census data was not possible.

Over the past few decades, the United States has seen a significant increase in the Latino population. Many of these Latinos are immigrants from other countries with other systems of identity and racial classification. These systems of classification may be in conflict with the official directives of the Census Bureau.

According to the Census Bureau, being Hispanic or Latino is an ethnic classification, not a racial classification. For perhaps as much as half of the Latino population, however, Latino is a racial category. A new survey from the Pew Hispanic Center illustrates this fact. When asked “Which of the following describes your race?”, 25 percent of Latinos answered “Hispanic or Latino.” Another 26 percent chose “Some other race”–rejecting the Census-Bureau-recognized racial categories of “white,” “black,” and “Asian.” While some of these “Some other races” may have been looking for “American Indian,” it is doubtful that all or even a majority of them were. They were looking for some racial category that the Census Bureau does not offer.

For many Latinos, “Latino” is understood as a racial category or as something other than an ethnic category in the sense that the Census Bureau intends. The idea of a cultural racial category is not an uncommon one. Nazi Germany, notoriously, institutionalized the category of a Jewish race. In Japan, there is the idea of a Japanese race which would distinguish them not only from non-Asian groups, but from other Asians as well. Groups that are conceptualized as cultural in the United States can be conceptualized as racial elsewhere.

Recently, NPR described George Zimmerman as a “white Latino,” but many of their listeners were confused by the term. This is interesting since according to data from the 2010 census 53 percent of Latinos are white.

The Pew Hispanic Center survey shows us that many Latinos see their group as something akin to a racial group. But the survey does not tell us how non-Latinos perceive and classify ​Latinos. Do non-Latinos perceive Latinos to be a separate race, an ethnic group, or something else? Latinos’ future in the United States depends not only on how they perceive themselves, but also on how others perceive, classify, and ultimately treat them. One hopes that a future Pew Hispanic Center survey will ask these questions.