We’re having trouble counting Hispanics. Should we be trying?
The Economist (“Some other race“):
According to guidelines laid down by the federal Office of Management and Budget in 1977, “Hispanic” is an ethnicity, not a race. Someone of Hispanic origin may belong to any of the five officially recognised races: white, black, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander (or any combination of these). The census form reflects this distinction.
This, however, is not how many American Hispanics have come to see themselves. In 2010, the last time a count was carried out, many were puzzled by a form that asked them first to declare whether or not they were of Hispanic origin, and then to say what race they belonged to. Half identified themselves as white. But over a third ticked a box marked “Some other race”. As a result, “some other” emerged as America’s third-largest racial grouping.
This frustrates the head-counters. So for the next count, in 2020, the Census Bureau is considering collapsing the two ethnicity and race questions into a single “race or origin” inquiry (it may also drop the anachronistic term “Negro”). This will allow people who identify themselves solely as Hispanic to declare themselves as such (though they may tick extra boxes, such as “black” or “white”, if they like).
Such a change, say officials, would not mean that “Hispanic” is now to be considered a new racial category. Still, the widespread reporting of Hispanic-specific data, acknowledges Roberto Ramirez at the Census Bureau, means that in some respects “Hispanic” has become a de facto race.
Some are sceptical about the proposal. Rubén Rumbaut, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, accepts the need for good data but says the bureau is thinking about race in 18th-century terms. Hispanic identity in America, he adds, is a “Frankenstein’s monster” that has taken on a life of its own.
To some degree, race and ethnicity are outmoded constructs. Still, they tell us some useful things about our politics, economics, and culture.
In many ways, “Hispanic” really isn’t a meaningful construct. People of various Latin American origins don’t necessarily see themselves as having a common culture. The only real commonality is language—all Hispanic countries have either Spanish or Portuguese are their primary tongue—but even that doesn’t necessarily have anything to with Hispanic Americans, many of whom speak only English. At the same time, the fact that those people who self-identify as Hispanic constitute an ever-increasing segment of the population, vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and have various statistically meaningful differences from the majority white population is worth understanding.
Contrary to the Emerging Democratic Majority thesis, though, the fact that these differences exist now doesn’t mean they will permanently.
The ethnic origins of some previous waves of immigrants have evaporated over time: Italians, Germans and Russians, dismissed by Benjamin Franklin in 1751 as of “swarthy Complexion”, are now, for the most part, just white. Similar forces may be at play today: last year the Pew Hispanic Centre found that among Hispanics of the third generation or above, almost half preferred to call themselves “American”.
It’s just bizarre to think of Germans as somehow of a different race than Brits or Frenchmen; once upon a time, it seemed obvious. Within living memory, the Irish were considered as some distinct “other” by most Americans; again, that’s inconceivable now.
Only slightly related but amusing:
More recently officials were (briefly) alarmed when data appeared to show a sudden leap in the Hispanic populations of Kansas and Missouri. Residents of those states had decided a box marked “Central American” on the 1970 census form must have been intended for them.
Well, they are right there in the center of America.