Latinos, Race, and the U.S. Census (Edward Telles)


1. We identify two dimensions of race for the Latino/Hispanic population in the United States--Latinos as one category among the various categories of the U.S. “ethno-racial pentagon” and racial or color differences among Latinos. In a major change from the previous (two-question) format, the Census Bureau recommends a one-question format for capturing ethno-racial distinctions in the 2020 census, which efficiently captures the Latino population on the first dimension and is consistent with racial classification and identification in the real world. At the same time, it nearly eliminates the problem that the two-question format fostered of classifying many Hispanics as “some other race” while maintaining a similar number of Americans classified as Hispanic or Latino. Whether the Census Bureau adopts the one- or two-question format is yet to be decided as of this writing. However, neither format is sufficient for capturing racial distinctions among the fast-growing Latino population, thus precluding effective monitoring of racial disparities in the United States.

2. Keywords: Hispanics; color; colorism; Afro-Latinos; ethno-racial; ethnic


3. In 1977, the U.S. Congress passed the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Directive 15, which regulates the classification of Latinos or Hispanics 1 in the census and other official surveys. OMB Directive 15 deems that Hispanics/Latinos are an ethnic but not a racial group in the U.S. Census. In census publications and in social practice, however, Hispanics or Latinos are often treated as a separate category, whether it is called racial or ethnic, apart from BLACK, Asian, white, and native Americans.

4. A two-question format in the census since 1980 has sought to implement the notion that Hispanics are an ethnicity and not a race. . . The “race” question never included the category Hispanic/Latino, and the large majority of Hispanics, faced with the available choices, chose either white or “other” (i.e., “some other race”). Less than 5 percent chose BLACK, and far fewer chose any of the other terms.

5. So-called ethnic groups, such as Jewish Americans, have been characterized as having distinct physical features and discriminated against accordingly or discriminated against by their religion or culture, and so-called racial groups, such as AFRICAN AMERICANS, have been described as having a shared culture and way of life.

6. Analysts have used the two questions together in their attempts to understand “racial” differences among Hispanics (Denton and Massey 1989; Logan 2010). Denton and Massey (1989), for example, examined segregation among Hispanics in Northeast metropolitan areas and assumed that those who self-identified as BLACK are phenotypically BLACK, those who identified as white are actually white, and those who identified as other or some other race are mixed. Logan made the same division and called these groups BLACK Hispanics, white Hispanics, and Hispanic Hispanics. Notably the racial designations were based on self-classification, but analysis of surveys has shown that self-identified race among Hispanics does not reflect phenotypic or color differences (Landale and Oropesa 2002; Roth 2012; E. Vargas et al. 2016). Although dark and phenotypically AFRICAN Hispanic respondents experience discrimination on the basis of phenotype, their racial self-identification may be a poor proxy for their racial ascription.

7. Note the example of Dominicans, who largely appear BLACK. In the 2000 U.S. Census, only 13 percent of Dominicans also identified as BLACK, and in 2010 that number increased to only 18 percent. Most Dominicans are probably considered BLACK in the American understanding of the term (Roth 2012; Candelario 2007), but they have been routinely classified as Indio in Dominican identity cards (Howard 2001). 2 Since the early twentieth century, the BLACK racial category, AFRICAN culture, and BLACKness became associated with Haitians, which were seen as antithetical to Dominican-ness (Moya Pons 1986; Howard 2001; Candelario 2007). Only recently, have some (non-Haitian) Dominicans begun to embrace BLACKness and identify with BLACK and especially mulatto categories (Howard 2001; Simmons 2009; Telles and Paschel 2014).

8. The Hispanic Response: Cognitive Understandings of Race and Ethnicity The two-question format used by the census does not capture the way that Hispanics tend to think about race; the census's separate notions of race and ethnicity simply do not coincide with the lived experience/worldview of many Hispanics (Hitlin, Brown, and Elder 2007). Social science research has found that cognitively Hispanics consider Hispanic/Latino as both race and ethnicity and, racially, that Hispanic is a group separate and in addition to BLACK, white, Asian, and American Indian (Hitlin, Brown, and Elder 2007).

9. Based on extensive testing of questions in very large census survey trials, including the Alternative Questionnaire Experiment in 2010 and the National Contents Test in 2015, the Census Bureau has proposed the biggest change in the race and ethnicity question(s) since at least 1980: a one-question format that eliminates the Hispanic ethnic question and adds a Hispanic/Latino category in the race question (Perlman and Nevada 2015). In other words, Hispanic would be treated as a race (and possibly MENA [Middle Eastern and North AFRICAN] would also become a new racial category) in addition to the traditional categories. Census Bureau analysts have found that the overall count of Hispanics is the same with either format and that the new format leads to a dramatic reduction in the selection of “other” or “some other race.” Moreover, identification as BLACK under either format remains the same, which means that there are similar undercounts of the Afro-Latino population under either format.

10. More recently, police and other institutions continue to classify suspects and others in a scheme where Hispanic is a major racial category. In institutions such as California prisons, inmates are “segregated by race” to diminish violence, reflecting the sharp racial boundaries of street gangs (Goodman 2008). In that highly racialized environment, Hispanics, AFRICAN AMERICANS, and whites are kept apart from each other, regardless of the insistence that Hispanics are not a race or the Census Bureau's notions and their neat preordained categories.

11. Race is a social construction and if members of a society deem certain individuals as belonging to a distinct race, then that view reflects the racialization of that society, whereby its members are classified in particular categories and then treated accordingly. In other words, society often distinguishes Latinos as a race apart but there is another dimension. Society, including Latinos themselves, also often racializes Latinos who appear AFRICAN and those with dark skin.

12. Dimension 2: Racialization by color or as BLACK, white, mestizo, and so on Social science data show that U.S. Latinos and Latin Americans are socially ranked along a racial hierarchy of skin colors and phenotypes (Telles and Murguia 1990; Rodriguez 2000; Telles and the Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America [PERLA] 2014) in much the same way as there is a racial hierarchy in the United States. But that hierarchy within the Hispanic population is not adequately captured in the census. When asked about one's race and ethnicity, Hispanics/Latinos are likely to “racially” self-identify as Hispanic/Latino or under a nationality group like Mexican or Dominican. At the same time, their lived experience also reflects their treatment in American society, where phenotype, especially a BLACK phenotype, affects their life chances. Yet they often do not identify as BLACK even though they may be perceived as such (Candelario 2007; Roth 2012). The second dimension, which we refer to as a second-order category of race, is fluid, while the first-order identification as Hispanic is not. For example, Hannon and DeFina (2015) find in a longitudinal study that only 2 percent of respondents switched classification as Hispanic from one year to another, but fully 44 percent of Hispanics switched their second-order racial classification.

13. The U.S. Census is inadequately equipped to capture the phenotypic and color gradients that characterize racialization within the Hispanic population. As we previously noted, the white and BLACK categories that have been used to make such distinctions among Latinos (Logan 2010; Denton and Massey 1989) are poorly captured by the U.S. Census. For many persons considered BLACK Latino, Afro-Latino or Latino of AFRICAN descent, BLACK self-identification in the U.S. Census is a second-order identity. For example, Landale and Oropesa (2002) find that when asked to identify themselves by race, 47.5 percent of Puerto Ricans identified as Puerto Rican, 40.6 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino, and less than 1 percent identified as BLACK. 5. . .. In the two-question option, many such persons probably choose “some other race.” Moreover, the census does not capture phenotype or skin color among Latinos (or anyone else) beyond the BLACK category. Latinos rarely identify as indigenous except in the relatively small number of cases in which they identify with an indigenous culture or speak an indigenous language.

14. Latinos in the United States are immigrants or descend from Latin Americans coming from twenty countries with their own, often complex, racial histories. (Latinos also include U.S.- and island-born Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, and a few who are actually DESCENDANTs of Mexicans living in areas conquered by the United States [not immigrants].) Latinos/Latin Americans span a wide range of phenotypes comprising varying degrees of European, indigenous, and AFRICAN ancestries, and many, perhaps most, are racially mixed.

15. While some Latin American countries tend toward the European phenotype or origins (e.g., Argentina), others toward BLACK (Brazil and Panama), and others toward indigenous (Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico), most have incorporated ideas of mixture based on the idea that racial distinctions are generally difficult to make because of a history of mixing. In Mexico, for example, most are considered mestizo (mixed race) yet they vary widely by skin color, which is a primary axis of stratification in Mexican society (Martínez Casas et al. 2014; Villarreal 2010). Thus, the so-called racial categories fail to capture such racialized differences.

16. ote that there are also racialized differences based on color or phenotype and referred to as colorism among AFRICAN AMERICANS, but AFRICAN AMERICANS are captured in a single category in the census. Skin color and other phenotypical differences result in differential treatment in schools, the labor market, the dating and marriage market, the criminal justice system, and other dimensions of society (Dixon and Telles 2017). The census thus does only an approximate job of monitoring discrimination by capturing the first order of identification, but it fails to capture the racialized dimension of phenotype variation within the BLACK population, as it does among Hispanics.

17. The Caribbean countries are largely of AFRICAN origin yet they and the U.S.-bound emigrants they spawned have quite distinct racial histories and politics (Sawyer 2006; Duany 2005; Candelario 2007).

18. As mentioned earlier, at the other end of the white-Black continuum, only 5 percent of Hispanics and about 15 percent of Dominicans select the BLACK category, even though some argue that most Dominicans in the United States would probably be considered BLACK (Candelario 2007; Roth 2012). As in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and other parts of Latin America (Candelario 2007; Telles 2004; Duany 2005), many Latinos avoid the BLACK category because BLACK is the most stigmatized category, instead self-classifying in U.S. Census categories such as other and white. On the whole, those who do identify as BLACK may be the more assimilated than those who are treated as BLACK. Golash-Boza and Darity (2008) find that greater experience with color discrimination is associated with greater identification as BLACK. However, they and others (Landale and Oropesa 2002; Hannon and DeFina 2015) find that skin color is only loosely associated with identification as BLACK. The U.S. Census thus does not reliably capture race differences within the Hispanic population.

19. The U.S. Census laudably attempts to designate Afro Latinos. However, it has not been able to fully identify that population, in either the old or the new format. In the old format, Latinos--identified in the Hispanic question-- could also identify as BLACK in the race question, and in the new format, respondents can check both the Latino/Hispanic and BLACK categories. Indeed, the Census Bureau has found that the change from the old to the new format does not really change the number of persons that are classified as Afro-Latino. The problem has not so much to do with the census question format as with self-identifications. Latinos, even when they are seen as BLACK, often do not identify that way. In the U.S. context, where single identities are most common, they may be seen as primarily Latino and see themselves that way; perhaps more worrisome, many see BLACKness as an identity to be avoided.

20. So how do we overcome this problem? Perhaps a long-term strategy, which has been tried by the Afro-Latino Forum in New York City, is to raise awareness and consciousness through TV spots about race in the Latino community for Hispanic media markets. By exposing Hispanics to the importance of checking off both BLACK and Latino and by reducing the stigma of BLACKness, self-identification as Afro-Latino might be enhanced. The use of supplemental surveys that measure skin color and hair type also provide direct measures of observed racial status, which can be used to assess an Afro-Latino population as well as distinguish the very heterogeneous Hispanic population by phenotype. Surveys might also consider a question on reflective race like “What race do others think you are?” or “Do others ever consider you BLACK or of AFRICAN origin?” Finally, the Census Bureau should consider publishing data specifically on Afro-Latinos, while seeking to specifically improve its ability to capture that population.