On The Census, Who Checks ‘Hispanic,’ Who Checks ‘White,’ And Why


Photo Courtesy of Pew Research Center.

In 1930, the race “Mexican” was added to the Census [questionnaire]. This happened during the Great Depression, and it was a time when people were being rounded up by the authorities. During the 1940s, they used the Census to seek Japanese-Americans for internment camps. People were terrified of the government, thus they didn’t want to be identified on the Census.

Everyone nowadays wants to be counted. Everyone now wants to be represented. People at the time, however, did not desire that. They didn’t want to be racialized, either. It was a time when claiming whiteness was the greatest way for people to fit in.

In Corpus Christi, Texas, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a Mexican-American group, was founded in 1929. The removal of the word “Mexican” from the 1930 census was one of their key organizing goals. They protested, saying, “We are the white race, and we are Americans.”

The Mexican government objected to the categorization since the Southwest used to be part of Mexico, and when it was taken over by the US, it promised Mexico that the Mexicans who lived there would be regarded as full citizens. To be a citizen at the time, you had to be white. So that’s how the whole issue of Mexicans identifying as legally white but socially not-white came about.

Because they alleged segregation and discrimination, the parties accused of prejudice might answer, “Well, no, you’re white.” It worked against them in certain respects. As a result, Mexican Americans and other Latino groups have leveraged this history of claiming whiteness to advocate for acceptance – claiming Americanness, claiming whiteness.

“Mexican” was successfully removed from [the census questionnaire] by LULAC and the Mexican government. There has never been another Latino group designated as a race on the list since 1930. The Hispanic origin question originally appeared on the Census long form, which is an extended questionnaire that is sent to nearly one out of every six households, in 1970. Finally, in 1980, the Hispanic identity question is included on all forms. It was previously asked after the race question. Because it was one of the most unanswered forms on the census, it was later put ahead of the race question. If you asked someone their race and they replied, “I’m white or black,” and then asked, “Are you Hispanic?” they would say, “I already answered this,” and skip the following question. So that’s why they’re the way they are, and why they’re ordered the way they are.

Furthermore, Latinos can come from a wide range of racial backgrounds. People can be Afro-Latino, white, and Latino, and there are a large number of dark Latinos. There’s the issue of not wanting to be racialized, and then there’s the issue of Latino racial variety.

The Census conducted a large-scale, comprehensive project in which they sent out 17 different alternative 2010 Census questions. And some of them were a mixed question, with Hispanic or Latino being included alongside racial categories. So they had over 750 families engaged, and they went back and interviewed roughly one in every six of the people that filled out the questionnaire. They were called back for a re-interview over the phone.

“For your race, you choose white. Is that how you describe yourself in everyday life? Is that how you’re perceived by others?”

They discovered that those who checked white did not identify with the label when it came to Latinos. So, when they phoned back roughly half of Latinos who checked white on the Census, a very small percentage of them thought of themselves as white. “So why did you check this?” [the interviewers] inquired. They further stated, “There was nothing else to do. I don’t think I’d be welcome anywhere else. There isn’t anything else to say.”

Latino is not a race according to the mixed question model. They just combined them because the inquiry asked about a person’s ethnicity or origin. There are options for white and black, as well as Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, and it says “tick all that apply.” And that’s an important factor because it may be a race for some people and an origin for others. Someone could identify as racially black and ethnically Hispanic. This allows them to check the box that says, “I am black and Hispanic.” They can just mark Hispanic/Latino as their only identity in those categories if they feel that way.

And it paid off handsomely for them: roughly 80% of Latinos checked simply Hispanic or Latino for the combined model, whereas the number of people who checked white went from half to between 9 and 16 percent, depending on the questionnaires they used. The number of Latinos who checked white dropped considerably.

It’s no longer the 1950s. We don’t live in a black/white/other world, and we’ve never lived in one. There are many organizations here, and we all deserve to be recognized and included. There’s a lot of anxiety about what this means, and a lot of it stems from people not realizing that they’re not attempting to lump Latinos into one ethnic category. It’s about offering individuals more, not less, ways to express themselves.