With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Should the Census Consider Latinos a "Race"?

In January, the Office of Management and Budget posted notice of proposed changes to the federal government’s standards for collecting data on race and ethnicity. On the past five censuses, respondents were asked whether they are, or are not, Hispanic or Latino. This is the so-called Hispanic-origin question. The census also asked a separate question about their racial identities, and respondents were able to choose “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander,” “White,” or “Some Other Race.” Under the new proposal, they would be asked a combined question: “What is your race or ethnicity?” Potential answers would now include “Hispanic or Latino” and “Middle Eastern or North African.” Census-takers could check as many boxes as they’d like, and provide as much additional information as they’d wish, such as whether they’re Navajo, Samoan, Ghanaian, Moroccan, Scottish, and also report multiple Hispanic groups such as Mexican and Puerto Rican, or Colombian and Guatemalan.

The proposed change intends to address a dramatic shift in how Latinos, in particular, have identified over the past couple of decades. In 2000 and 2010, the “Some Other Race” category was the third-largest race group, behind “White” and “Black.” In 2020, it became the second-largest race group, behind “White” and ahead of “Black.” The overwhelming majority of S.O.R. responses—an estimated ninety-four per cent—came from Latinos, making it hard to determine with precision what the racial composition of the Latino population was. All the data proved was that a significant percentage of Latinos didn’t see themselves reflected in any of the options.

Census Bureau research demonstrated that a combined race-and-ethnicity question would dramatically lower the percentage of Latinos who check the S.O.R. box, so the bureau encouraged the O.M.B. to change its standards. At first, Latino advocacy organizations resisted the change; their predecessors in the nineteen-sixties and seventies had fought for the two-part question as a solution to the undercount of the Latino population. But Census Bureau research also showed that a combined question would not lower the Latino population count and would, in fact, improve the collection of data on Latinos of all racial backgrounds. Slowly, the largest Latino advocacy organizations came along.

The O.M.B. hoped to approve the change in time for the 2020 census, but the effort stalled during the Trump Administration. Finally, in March, 2022, more than a hundred organizations, including major Latino civil-rights groups, revived the campaign for the combined question. In a letter to the O.M.B.’s director, Shalanda Young, they argued that the “revision is critical to ensuring that the U.S. Census Bureau can fulfill its mission to produce full, fair, and accurate data on our nation’s population and economy. The revision is also essential for the Administration’s efforts to improve our federal data collection infrastructure and advance equity in federal action.”

Not all Latinos saw it that way. In the months since the O.M.B.’s announcement, a coalition of Afro-Latino organizations has argued that a combined race-and-ethnicity question would homogenize a decidedly nonhomogeneous community and marginalize Latinos of African descent. Its leaders include Nancy López, an Afro-Dominican sociologist at the University of New Mexico; Tanya K. Hernández, a professor at Fordham Law and the author of “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality”; and Guesnerth Josué Perea, the executive director of the afrolatin@ forum. For a long time, the dominant thinking about Latinos was that they complicated the Black-white binary that has defined race in the United States. Recently, though, some Afro-Latinos have argued that Latinos have reinforced it. There are Black Latinos and white Latinos, who each experience the world differently. López has argued that Latinos’ different experiences stem from their “street race,” meaning how they are perceived when they walk down the street. For López and her allies, it defies logic that all Latinos would be counted as members of the same race. “Now we’re just gonna mix race, ethnicity, and origin, everything,” she told me. “It’s all the same. We’re all the same color. No, that’s not the reality. And to say otherwise is to eradicate our ability to document inequities based on what you look like.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker