December 29, 2004


The Birth of a 'Latino Race' (Ian Haney López, December 29, 2004, LA Times)

What's behind the Census Bureau seeking suddenly to drop the "other race" option, a fixture of every census since 1910? And why should Latinos see retaining this option as a victory? The answers touch on the latest wrinkles in the politics of race and demography in the United States.

First, some background: Historically, "other race" served as a catchall — a category for those who did not fit easily into the official census races, which today are white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander and Native American. For the bureau, "other race" indicates not a discrete population group but an accounting trick. In tabulating racial populations, the "other race" numbers are simply reallocated to the official categories, and data on the characteristics of this population are not compiled. This made statistical sense so long as those denominated "other" represented a small number and a miscellaneous mixture of racial outliers, not a distinct social group.

But in 1980 the Census Bureau introduced two changes that completely transformed the nature of this category: First, it added to its race question a companion item, inquiring of all Americans whether they were ethnically "Hispanic." Second, it moved to a system of racial self-reporting. Instead of census enumerators assigning racial identities, the bureau asked every person filling out census forms to identify his or her own race.

Suddenly, the "other race" population exploded, increasing tenfold. And 97% of those claiming to be "some other race" also identified themselves as "Hispanic."

Creating a new race category wasn't what the bureau had in mind. In 1990 and 2000, in hopes of reducing the number of Latinos identifying as "other," it tried to convey more clearly that its ethnicity and race questions should be answered independently. But to no avail. Today, about 6% of Americans, or more than 1 in 20, count themselves as "some other race," and the overwhelming majority of them are Latinos. Like it or not, nearly half of the Latino population considers itself a race.

That means, of course, that many Latinos still see themselves as members of the bureau's usual racial categories. According to Brown University professor John Logan's analysis of the census and survey data, Latinos generally divide themselves into three racial camps. There are black Latinos, who identify as Latino ethnically and as black racially. This group, steady at just under 3% of the Latino population since 1980, numbers nearly a million in the United States. Next come white Latinos, who grew from 9 million in 1980 to just shy of 18 million in 2000. This doubling did not, however, keep pace with the growth of the Latino population as a whole. The proportion of Latinos claiming to be white has steadily declined, from 64% in 1980 to just under 50% in 2000.

Then there are those Logan calls "Latino Hispanics," who identify as "Hispanic" on the ethnicity question and as "other" on the race item. This population has steadily gained among all Latinos, from 34% in 1980 to nearly 47% in 2000.

The bureau hasn't said much publicly about this trend, or about why it sought to do away with the "other race" category. It claims to be primarily concerned with the rising number of people opting out of its official categories. But one can't help but ponder deeper implications.

The irony is that activists see claiming racial status as a way of grabbing political power but instead the confusion it causes over how many Latinos there actually are here and in what numbers they turn out to vote has diminished their clout.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 29, 2004 4:19 PM

The race men have a problem. Most Latinos came to this country fleeing intrusive governments that taxed and stole everything they had. If they wanted a country where the political class decides who gets what benefits and opportunities and who doesn't they'd have stayed in Latin America. There is no analogy with American Blacks who see every single government giveaway as their entitlement because White Americans had the poor taste to take their ancestors away from that jungle paradise of Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin.

Latinos are integrating rapidly into American culture despite the best efforts of government bureaucrats and political activists to keep them locked away in a crime-ridden, linguistic and cultural barrio.

Posted by: Bart at December 30, 2004 6:33 AM