The Census Can’t Fit Latinos Into A Race Box And It’s Causing More Confusion

This month, Pew released the results of a study that showed that between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, about 2.5 million U.S. Latinos changed their race category from “some other race” to “white.”

The news made The New York Times and Slate think that maybe the United States isn’t going to become majority-minority as many people think it will. This is because “a surprising number of Hispanics chose to identify themselves as ‘white’ in the last census,” as Slate put it. Both articles say that the tendency for light-skinned Hispanics to identify as white may be a sign that they are becoming more like white people. Latino Rebels disagree with this idea and question how well the non-Hispanic authors understand Latinidad.

The idea that Latinos will join the white population is an interesting one, and it may even be true. However, the statistics released by Pew don’t really back up such a broad claim. Just as likely, if not more so, is that the study shows less about how Latino identity or patterns of assimilation are changing and more about how the Census’s system for classifying Hispanics is flawed.

The words “Latino” and “Hispanic” don’t mean a race. Instead, they mean a multiracial ethnicity made up mostly of indigenous, European, and African people, as well as, most of the time, mixed-race people. In Latin America, there are many ways to talk about people who are of more than one race. The most common are mestizo (mixed European and indigenous heritage) and mulato (mixed European and African heritage).

This month’s Pew study isn’t the first sign that more Latinos are putting “white” as their race on the Census. The number of Latinos who said they were Latino on the Census rose from 47.9% in 2000 to 53% in 2010.

But before we jump to the conclusion that Latinos are choosing “white” because of changing ideas about race or because they are becoming more like other people, let’s look at a few things about the Latino community.

First of all, some Latin Americans and, by extension, some U.S. Latinos come from Europe and look white. Their sense of race has little to do with how much they have blended in. They have always been white and Latino, just like a German descendant is white and European.

On the census, though, it does seem clear that a large number of Latinos of mixed race say they are “white.” But seeing mixed-race people say they are white is not something that only happens in the U.S., nor does it show a process of racial assimilation that is unique to the U.S. The same thing happens in Latin America. Even though Latin America didn’t have the same kind of strict, legally-mandated racial segregation as the U.S., the region still has to deal with racism and the fact that black slaves and indigenous workers were forced to work for other people.

People of mixed heritage in Latin America often say they are white. This is a well-known fact that social scientists Edward Telles, René Flores, and Fernando Urrea-Giraldo have worked hard to prove. The researchers asked thousands of people in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador about their race and collected socioeconomic information about them, such as how much education they had and how much their families made. At the same time, the researcher used a palette with 11 colours that ranged from almost white to almost black to figure out the skin tone of the people who answered the survey.

When the socioeconomic data is sorted by the self-reported ethnicity of the person, Latin America seems to be a more or less racially democratic place where people of colour earn similar wages and get the same amount of education. When the data is sorted by the skin colour of the respondent, however, a clear pattern of inequality emerges: as the respondent’s skin gets darker, their income and education drop. The research not only shows that Latin Americans of mixed heritage tend to see themselves as white, but it also shows how starkly different races are treated in the area.

Aside from cultural factors that may help explain why a lot of Latinos in the U.S. say they are white, it seems that the census itself is partly to blame. As we’ve said before, the confusion on the U.S. Census has less to do with Latinos’ changing ideas about race and more to do with the fact that they don’t have many choices. On the Census, if someone says they are Hispanic, they can then choose to be white, black, Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander, or “some other race.” With those choices, it’s not surprising that many Latinos choose to be white. Even though people were quick to draw conclusions about Latinos becoming white, Pew was clear about this when they reported the number.

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