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Census 2020

04/24/13 Carlos E. Cortés

I recently posted a blog here comparing ethnic heritage and identity. Heritage refers to your familial, national, cultural, ethnic, or religious ancestry. Identity refers to the way that you view yourself. Now, the U.S. Census Bureau is planning to comingle these two categories in a way that could have significant implications for the Hispanic future.

The Census Bureau has announced that it is considering the reclassification of Latinos as a race rather than enumerating us separately as an ethnicity, as is currently done. This would eliminate the current dedicated Hispanic heritage category (Question 5 in the 2010 Census) and merge us into the racial identity category (Question 6), which would put us in direct racial identity competition with the currently listed races. What is paramount is that this shift could artificially lead to a significant Hispanic/Latino heritage undercount.

The Census system has been counting us by asking a direct, simple yes or no heritage question: Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin? In my case, my family fled from Mexico in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution and settled in the United States. So my response was simple,  I checked the box with my particular sub-option: “Yes, Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano.”

Then I went on to the racial identity question: “What is Person 1’s race? Mark one or more boxes.” I looked at the light-skinned, hazel-eyed man in the mirror, considered my mixed ancestry, and checked White. So did a clear majority of Latinos who answered Yes to Question 5, as shown in the published Census results. Other Hispanics made different racial selections, including Black, American Indian, and “Other” race.  In other words, within the 2010 U.S. racial classification system, we emerged as a racially diverse people. Surprise! So why not leave it at that? At this point, I see no reason to change.

Some people, however, seem unhappy with this direct way of calculating the number of Hispanics in the U.S. For whatever reason, they seem to want to transform the system from a clear Hispanic heritage enumeration, which resulted in a count of more than 50 million, into a racial identity choice by inventing the Hispanic (or Latino) race. I find this to be both a bizarre bureaucratic gambit and a serious threat to Hispanics as a whole, because it could drastically reduce the Hispanic tally by shifting from a simple heritage question to a complex competitive identity one.

I’m open to compelling counter-arguments, but so far I haven’t heard any. Until convinced otherwise, count me as one of the Latinos who find this likely to create a potential heritage undercount. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this critical matter.

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside.  He can be reached at carlos.cortes@ucr.edu.