Are Latinos White? Census Confusion Sparks Debate Over Racial Identity

Are Latinos White? Census Confusion Sparks Debate Over Racial Identity

El Paso – Anthropologists and Latino residents of El Paso have called into question recent statements made by a social activist that advise Hispanics to register their race as “white” when it comes time to fill out the census form this month.

Speaking to the El Paso Times this past week, Jessie Acosta, chairman of the El Paso Complete Count Committee, estimated that 98 percent of the Hispanics living in El Paso fall are technically white. His comments have generated much controversy and confusion in the community.

Academics and citizens agree that census officials have committed a “racial inaccuracy” by not offering Hispanics the opportunity to register themselves as “mixed,” given that the vast majority of Latinos are of mixed descent, with Spanish and indigenous American ancestors.

Margarita Rendón, a Mexican woman living in El Paso who regards herself as trigueña [a lighter-skinned Latina], stated that there exists enormous confusion over the race sections on these types of questionnaires. She stated that she is neither black nor white, and for this reason she always marks the box labeled “Other” to answer these questions.

“I always thought that the gringos were the white ones,” she said, a bit confused.

But Acosta, reaffirming his initial position, pointed out that one should make a distinction between race and ethnicity. The former, he said, has to do with biological ancestry, while the latter pertains to the cultural heritage of a person.

Some anthropologists disagree with this construction, claiming that the notion of race is a purely social paradigm with no biological grounding whatsoever.

“The census is not logical,” said David Tavárez, professor of anthropology at Vassar College in New York. “It responds to the political pressures of certain groups in this country.”

Tavárez stated that because the concept of race is entirely subjective, and the census form is filled out by each person individually, this self-report methodology makes it impossible to obtain precise, objective data regarding the race and ethnicity of the participants.

Damon Dozier, of the American Anthropological Association, also eschewed biology-based definitions, and pointed toward the role historical constructions play in our understanding of race.

“Looking at race through the lens of biology stigmatizes some human beings and privileges others. There is no evidence that there are biologically different groups of people,” Dozier said.

But Acosta claims that the Census Committee has attempted to resolve these misunderstandings by putting the question about ethnicity before the question about race on the census form.

“Question number eight asks whether or not you are Hispanic, which refers to your ethnicity,” he said. “Once you answer that one, you move onto the next one, which is the question about race, and the options there are: White, Black, Asian, Native American and Other.”

Andrea Hernández, an El Paso accountant, also takes issue with the methodology of the census, arguing that if its aim is to get a tally on the nation’s population and racial demographics, then they should be as precise as possible when formulating questions regarding race.

“Why not include an option that says mestizo?” Hernández said, arguing that the presence of the “Other” option creates more confusion and complications.

“They should clearly list all possible alternatives, rather than leaving room for people to regard themselves as ‘Other,'” she said. “Because, really, what is ‘Other,’ after all?”

Acosta explained that much of this confusion is owed to a longstanding historical fallacy that has led people to mistakenly believe that only Anglo-Saxons should be considered white.

Acosta also pointed out that in America this confusion only exists within the Latino community. According to him, African-Americans know that they are considered black, and Asians and Native Americans can easily identify their respective societal classifications. Latinos, however, are stuck in a kind of limbo, not knowing to which race they belong.

“During the 2000 Census, 39 percent of Latinos in El Paso did not know what their race was, and I am sure that something similar will occur this year. This is why the Census wants to classify as ‘white’ those who marked ‘hispanic’ for the ethnicity question and then checked ‘Other’ in the box for the race question,” he said.

Translation: Ryan Croken.

Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. His
essays and book reviews have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Z
Magazine and ReligionDispatches.org. He can be reached at
ryan.croken@gmail.com.