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What Does the Census Count; What Should It Count?

One American’s multifaceted identity leads to a consideration of what the US census actually counts – and what it should.

Questionaire for race on the US Census Form in 2010. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr)

As a second generation Afro-Latina, I have spent much of my life explaining my “identity.” When it comes to official instances of filling-in-the-blank, this task often proves impossible. The most prominent example of this is the US Census: In terms of race, Latino is not offered as an option. Latino “ethnicity” is noted as a separate item on the Census form, and therefore, people who identify as Latino must also fill in another blank, categorizing themselves as white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaska Native. As a result, a lot of us end up choosing “white” as a default.

Among the family pictures hanging in my home while I was growing up was one of my great-grandmother, a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman from Italy. Although my white Italian nonnina (little grandmother) died before I was born, I constantly heard stories about how loving and strong-willed she was amid much adversity. These stories would fill my heart with pride. My nonnina was a fierce woman, and I claimed her as my kin – but her presence in my history does not make me white. To claim myself as white on the census wouldn’t be accurate. There is a clear difference between race and nationality.

Like many Americans, my ancestry is mixed. Although I have not taken the time to figure out what percent of my DNA is from Africa, Europe, etc., the mixture has resulted in a woman who has a chocolate-hued complexion, curly hair and a wide nose. Combine this with two parents that identify as Afro-Peruvian, I grew up identifying and culturally relating more with black people. Today, I identify as a black woman and more specifically Afro-Latina. Even if I had blonde hair like my grandmother, it would be difficult for me to identify as white.

Currently, the US Census form, the main tool used by the federal government to set policy and determine infrastructure investments, asks about race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity separately. Numerous reports currently champion making “Hispanic” a racial category in the 2020 decennial count. This effort is a byproduct of concerns about the nearly 18 million Latinos who did not identify their race in the 2010 census. For many Latinos, particularly Afro-Latinos, the likelihood of not being counted if “Hispanic” becomes a racial category, is a concern.

The bottom line is the diversity of people of Latin American origin makes it difficult to simply classify folks as one race. Like the United States, Latin America has people of white, African, indigenous, Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds – and all the possible combinations thereof. In fact, most people don’t realize that after Nigeria, Brazil has the most people of African descent of any country in the world. So it’s not shocking so many Latinos selected the “some other race” category on the census.

The uncertainty of establishing Latinos’ racial composition is detrimental to the ability to confront discrimination and ensure compliance regarding civil rights and racial disparities. For example, in housing and lending, it is important to understand why a black, Latino or white person each have different levels of access to the same mortgage.

It is undeniable that people with darker-skin experience disparate treatment in countless realms of society. Across the Americas, the people who hold a majority of wealth and political power are those with white or lighter complexions. It is census data that helps identify these racial and ethnic disparities in not only wealth-building, but also in education, employment and health. Lumping all Latinos together as a monolithic group isn’t the solution to identifying socioeconomic injustice.

And so, even if the census forms were to list Hispanic as a racial category, it is important for people like me to be able to include both my racial identity as well as my national origin of Peru. Practically speaking, keeping a certain level of continuity in the form also allows for the ability to study changes among groups over different periods.There is no simple definitive solution, but it is important that Latinos are given the option to describe their racial and ethnic identities. Others should not have the ability to choose our race for us.