In January, the Office of Management and Budget posted notice of proposed changes to the federal government’s standards for collecting data on race and ethnicity. On the past five censuses, respondents were asked whether they are, or are not, Hispanic or Latino. This is the so-called Hispanic-origin question. The census also asked a separate question about their racial identities, and respondents were able to choose “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander,” “White,” or “Some Other Race.” Under the new proposal, they would be asked a combined question: “What is your race or ethnicity?” Potential answers would now include “Hispanic or Latino” and “Middle Eastern or North African.” Census-takers could check as many boxes as they’d like, and provide as much additional information as they’d wish, such as whether they’re Navajo, Samoan, Ghanaian, Moroccan, Scottish, and also report multiple Hispanic groups such as Mexican and Puerto Rican, or Colombian and Guatemalan.
The proposed change intends to address a dramatic shift in how Latinos, in particular, have identified over the past couple of decades. In 2000 and 2010, the “Some Other Race” category was the third-largest race group, behind “White” and “Black.” In 2020, it became the second-largest race group, behind “White” and ahead of “Black.” The overwhelming majority of S.O.R. responses—an estimated ninety-four per cent—came from Latinos, making it hard to determine with precision what the racial composition of the Latino population was. All the data proved was that a significant percentage of Latinos didn’t see themselves reflected in any of the options.
Census Bureau research demonstrated that a combined race-and-ethnicity question would dramatically lower the percentage of Latinos who check the S.O.R. box, so the bureau encouraged the O.M.B. to change its standards. At first, Latino advocacy organizations resisted the change; their predecessors in the nineteen-sixties and seventies had fought for the two-part question as a solution to the undercount of the Latino population. But Census Bureau research also showed that a combined question would not lower the Latino population count and would, in fact, improve the collection of data on Latinos of all racial backgrounds. Slowly, the largest Latino advocacy organizations came along.
The O.M.B. hoped to approve the change in time for the 2020 census, but the effort stalled during the Trump Administration. Finally, in March, 2022, more than a hundred organizations, including major Latino civil-rights groups, revived the campaign for the combined question. In a letter to the O.M.B.’s director, Shalanda Young, they argued that the “revision is critical to ensuring that the U.S. Census Bureau can fulfill its mission to produce full, fair, and accurate data on our nation’s population and economy. The revision is also essential for the Administration’s efforts to improve our federal data collection infrastructure and advance equity in federal action.”
Not all Latinos saw it that way. In the months since the O.M.B.’s announcement, a coalition of Afro-Latino organizations has argued that a combined race-and-ethnicity question would homogenize a decidedly nonhomogeneous community and marginalize Latinos of African descent. Its leaders include Nancy López, an Afro-Dominican sociologist at the University of New Mexico; Tanya K. Hernández, a professor at Fordham Law and the author of “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality”; and Guesnerth Josué Perea, the executive director of the afrolatin@ forum. For a long time, the dominant thinking about Latinos was that they complicated the Black-white binary that has defined race in the United States. Recently, though, some Afro-Latinos have argued that Latinos have reinforced it. There are Black Latinos and white Latinos, who each experience the world differently. López has argued that Latinos’ different experiences stem from their “street race,” meaning how they are perceived when they walk down the street. For López and her allies, it defies logic that all Latinos would be counted as members of the same race. “Now we’re just gonna mix race, ethnicity, and origin, everything,” she told me. “It’s all the same. We’re all the same color. No, that’s not the reality. And to say otherwise is to eradicate our ability to document inequities based on what you look like.”
López and her allies worry that, when faced with a clear choice between “Black,” “White,” and “Hispanic or Latino,” a good number of Latinos will choose only one box, which would perpetuate the historical undercount of Latinos. They also don’t like that, under the “Black or African American” checkbox on the proposed combined question, only African, Anglophone, and Francophone Caribbean countries of origin are listed—Haiti and Jamaica, for example. Similarly, respondents who identify as white would have the option to check “German,” “Irish,” or “English,” but not “Cuban” or “Argentinian.”
More broadly, López and other opponents are inclined to see the proposed change as a zero-sum game, in which the Afro-Latino minority is once again sacrificed to appease the mestizo-Latino majority, who may feel better represented by the “Hispanic or Latino” designation. To the coalition, this seems out of step with the moment; the murder of George Floyd, in 2020, sparked tensions but also led to the expression of solidarity between Latinos and African Americans, and within Black and non-Black Latino communities. The group says that it’s asking the Census Bureau only to “do no further harm,” as López has put it.
Two of the lead designers of the research and proposed changes—Nicholas Jones and Roberto Ramirez, of the Census Bureau’s population division—countered that a combined question will lead to better data on race and ethnicity, including for Afro-Latinos. They and their team spent more than a decade testing the proposed change, with the 2010 Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment and the 2015 National Content Test, both of which had combined questions. Ramirez described the 2015 test as “the largest ethnicity-and-race content test we ever conducted at the Census Bureau, with over a million housing units sampled.”
Ramirez shared a table that is buried toward the end of an almost four-hundred-page report on the 2015 test, which compares responses with separate and combined race and ethnicity questions. It shows that Afro-Latinos responded to the combined question in basically the same way that they responded to the separate question, with only small variations depending on whether respondents were asked to provide more detail in write-in areas or whether they could provide more detail by checking boxes. (Detailed checkboxes performed a little bit better than write-in areas.) He added that, through an extensive “Origin Code List,” the Census Bureau now tracks more subgroups than ever before, including more than eighty designations that apply specifically to Latinos. This features obvious ones such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban, but also Chapín (from Guatemala), Zonian (from the Panama Canal Zone), Arauco (from Chile), Taíno (Indigenous from the Caribbean), and Garifuna (Afro-Indigenous communities primarily from Honduras and Belize).
Ramirez’s point was that there are plenty of different ways that Latinos, and also Afro-Latinos, could choose to self-identify. He reminded me that the Census Bureau couldn’t force respondents to input all of the information that data collectors might want them to provide. And, in fact, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that about one in seven Afro-Latino adults (eight hundred thousand of six million total) chose not to identify as Hispanic. Whether there are separate or combined race and ethnicity questions, there will still be a significant percentage of Afro-Latinos whose Latino backgrounds will remain hidden in the data.
The information collected and reported by the census can never be perfect, as Arturo Vargas, the chief executive officer of the NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials) Educational Fund, told me, because “this is all human nature. It’s how people see themselves, and there is nothing that people tie themselves to more emotionally than their self-identity.” Echoing him, Ramirez said, “There is no perfect race question. I can tell you that right now.”
As part of its opposition to the proposed changes, the coalition of Afro-Latino groups has launched a letter-writing campaign, urged members to speak up at town halls, and held educational Webinars. In one event, hosted by the afrolatin@ forum in early March called “Why Counting AfroLatin@s Matters!,” speakers said that they want non-Black Latinos to “be honest” when marking their race on the census and other federal documents, because recognizing one’s identity is more than an expression of how one sees oneself. It is also an expression of one’s social and political standing. As Dash Harris Machado, an independent filmmaker and the moderator of the conversation, put it, “The census isn’t the place to promote your ideology, to promote your beliefs, to promote what you think it should be, to promote fairy tales. It is what is in the lived, and material, and real. And so it is not a place to prove how Latina you are. Again, it’s about being honest—honest—about how you are racialized in the world.”