Opinion: Black Latinos Are Almost Invisible In The Census. We Can Fix That.

Jomaira Salas Pujols
(Photo: liveslow via Getty Images)

Last week, my younger sister accompanied our father to the doctor, and sent me a picture of his medical intake form. She captioned it: “When your dad realizes he’s Black.” In the picture, I could see two sections she had marked in red: ethnicity and race. Our dad, a medium-dark skin Dominican man, had selected “Black” as his race and “Hispanic or Latino” as his ethnicity.

My father has been black his whole life, but like 97.5 percent of Latinos, he didn’t call himself black when it came time to fill out the 2010 census. This time around I hope that he, and lots of other black Latinos, will.

For almost 40 years, the U.S. Census Bureau has asked people like my father two questions about their race and ethnicity. The two-question format first asks respondents to identify if they are “Hispanic or Latino,” and then prompts them to select their race: “American Indian and Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander,” “White,” or “some other race.”

Many scholars and other experts had hoped that in the 2020 census, the bureau would change the format to one question by eliminating the ethnicity category and making “Hispanic/Latino” a new racial category. The advantage of this change, experts argued, would be to decrease the number of Latinos who select “some other race,” therefore capturing more accurate data about Latinos as a group. 

Instead, in January, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would keep the two-part race and ethnicity question; in the 2020 Census, Latinos will once again be asked to identify their race as separate from their Latino ethnicity.

There are obvious problems with this format. Those who oppose it are correct to note that in the 2010 census, about one third of Latinos selected the “some other race” category and wrote in ethnicity terms like “Hispanic/Latino” or nationality origins like “Puerto Rican” or “Colombian.” Initially, the census created the “some other race” option to allow for a small number of respondents who don’t fit existing official race categories. However, it is now the third-largest race group counted by the census, which suggests that we are undercounting Latinos in the United States.

But there are good reasons to keep the two-part format, especially if Latinos  like my father can be convinced to answer the question in a way that rejects internalized anti-blackness, and reflects their experiences as black Latinos.

Latino is not a race, it is an ethnicity. Ethnicity describes a person’s culture, language, heritage and geography. Race, on the other hand, is about how others see us. And although most social scientists agree that race is a social construct, they also contend that it does matter; our experiences are undeniably shaped by our race.

Latinos can be of any race, and while they are all the same ethnicity, racial differences predict vastly unequal life experiences. Black Latinos have lower health outcomes, live in poorer neighborhoods and have higher depressive symptoms than white Latinos. In fact, black Latinos in the U.S. have health outcomes that are closer to those of African-Americans than to those of their white Latino counterparts.

These kinds of inequities among Latinos extend throughout Latin America. Research in various Latin American countries — including Bolivia, Mexico and Colombia — shows that the lightest Latinos achieve the highest educational outcomes, and black Latinos the lowest. The underrepresentation of black Latinos in Spanish-language and English TV is particularly staggering. You’ll have a very difficult time finding an Afro-Latino in a magazine, and although shows like “Jane the Virgin” and “One Day at Time” represent some aspects of Latinidad, they don’t have any prominent Latino characters who are black.

It’s clear that race shapes nearly every part of a Latino person’s life. As a result, combining the census question would obscure large racial differences within a vast ethnic group, and would mask the severe inequalities black Latinos face.

Some of those inequalities are reinforced by anti-blackness that lives in the Latino community, as well as outside of it. Racism is a defining aspect in the lives of many Afro-Latinos, who are often ridiculed by their families and friends for having “pelo malo” (“bad hair”) and are encouraged to marry whiter or lighter skinned partners in favor of “improving the race.” Many Latinos have a family member or neighbor who identifies as “indio” or “mestizo” but could pass for African-American walking down the street. My dad is one of those people.

It is not surprising, then, that in the 2010 census, only 2.5 percent of Latinos selected “black” as their race. For many Latinos, selecting “white” or “some other race” in the census is aspirational. It is an attempt to join a category that they are often excluded from. Latinos of all races carry with them the anti-black baggage that colonialism and slavery imposed upon them. Self-identification, however, tells us little about how others see and treat Latinos. The data we collect should reflect these social outcomes.

One way for the U.S. Census Bureau to more accurately measure racial inequality among Latinos would be to also ask about ascribed race — what other people think you are. Scholar Nancy Lopez describes this as ”street race,” or the race a person is most often taken for when walking down the street. When my dad goes to the hospital or to the bank he is often mistaken for African-American, until he begins to speak Spanish. As a result, his experiences are more like those of his African-American neighbors than those of his light-skin sister.

Of course, how we see ourselves is an important aspect of our identity, as it allows us to form friendships and join groups based on shared cultural traits. But if we’re interested in combating social inequalities, we need data about how others see us — our ascribed race. How people mark their race in the census and other government forms has tremendous implications for our ability to track and combat the effects of discrimination.

Afro-Latinos like Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Miriam Jimenez Roman and Piri Thomas have long shown us that blackness and Latinidad can and do coexist. Today, we are seeing an important resurgence of black pride in Latino communities, driven in part by public figures like Amara La Negra, Miss Rizos, and beauty blogger MonicaStyleMuse. Instead of advocating for a change in the two-part race and ethnicity question, we should encourage more Afro-Latinos to identify as black, and to mark that as their race on the census.

Young people like my sister and I are talking to our immigrant parents about Afro-Latinidad. We should continue to fight anti-blackness in and outside of our communities, and do what it takes to ensure that the census collects accurate data about racial inequality among Latinos.

Jomaira Salas Pujols is a sociology Ph.D. student at Rutgers University and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program fellow. She studies race, education and student resistance. 

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