The Volokh Conspiracy

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How Well Do You Know America's Racial Classification System? (First of a Series)


As discussed in my forthcoming book Classified, contrary to popular belief, racial and ethnic classification in the US is not solely a matter of personal choice. The federal Office of Management and Budget created a classification scheme in 1978 to be used by all federal agencies, and barely amended since. The classifications you see on employment forms, applications for mortgages, applications for university admission, and so on, are taken from the official federal classifications. Importantly, while these forms rarely include instructions, the OMB classifications have official, legally binding definitions.

With that background, let's try a series of quizzes to see how well you know how these classifications are defined. Let's start with the Hispanic/Latino category. All quiz answers are based on the official OMB definitions. Note that a few federal agencies use slightly different classifications, and states have their own classification schemes, particularly for affirmative action in government contracting, that can differ, though not dramatically.

(1) A couple immigrates from Spain. Their son Bram is born in the US. Is he a member of the Hispanic/Latino category?

(2) Same scenario as the first example except the couple is from Brazil. Is Bram Hispanic/Latino?

(3) Binyamin Goldberg immigrates to the US from Israel. His father's family came to Israel from Poland, but his mother's Turkish family traces their ancestry to Sephardic Jews who fled from Spain in 1492. They stopped speaking Ladino, the Spanish-based language of Sephardic Jews, several generations ago. Is Binyamin Hispanic/Latino?

(4) Juan Castro immigrates to the US from Peru. Despite his Spanish-sounding name, his parents trace their ancestries only to members of the Inca tribe. Not only that, but Juan grew up in the Peruvian Amazon speaking only an indigenous language, he only knows a few words of Spanish. If he has to fill out a form, should he check Hispanic/Latino or Native American, or both?

(5) Jose Acarda was born to a poor, black single mother, and adopted by the Acarda family, immigrants from Argentina of Spanish descent. Is Jose Hispanic/Latino?

Answers below.

Hispanic is defined as "of Spanish origin or culture." Thus,

(1) Bram is Hispanic/Latino, if he so identifies.

(2) Bram is not Hispanic/Latino. While Americans often consider Brazilians to be Latinos, because they come from a Portuguese rather than Spanish-speaking culture, they are not "officially" Hispanic/Latino. The category was originally called "Hispanic"; Latino was added in 1997, but the definition remained the same. The Federal Department of Transportation counts Brazilians as Hispanic/Latinos, and also Americans of Portuguese descent. Several New England states have a separate Portuguese classification.

(3) Binyamin's family seems to have lost most of the Spanish culture they once had, but on his maternal side he is of "Spanish origin." One can question whether "Spanish origin" should go back over 500 years, but there is a Small Business Administration decision that a Sephardic applicant without a Spanish surname is Hispanic, with no evidence that the individual spoke Spanish or otherwise had any Hispanic cultural ties. Another SBA ruling states that Sephardic heritage is evidence of Hispanic status (but in the case in question, there was much more evidence). Beyond that, Sephardic Jews literally come within the definition of "Spanish origin." Verdict: Goldberg is Hispanic, if he so identifies.

(4) Juan technically is neither of Spanish origin nor of Spanish culture. But in practice, being of Spanish origin or culture is defined as having ancestry in a predominately Spanish-speaking country. So Juan is classified as Hispanic, and a Basque-speaker from northern Spain would also be so classified. Juan is not, however, classified as Native American, because that classification is limited to American and Canadian Indians. American Indians have lobbied hard to keep their classification narrow.

(5) Jose, assuming he identifies as Hispanic, counts as Hispanic, as someone of "Spanish culture," given that his parents are Latino immigrants, though I've never seen a case with that scenario. A more interesting question would arise if he were adopted by a third-generation American Hispanic couple who are well-assimilated and no longer speak Spanish or otherwise do much of anything specifically "Hispanic." If I had to rule on such a scenario, I'd say "not Hispanic" even though, if the adoptee has a Spanish surname, he might be subjected to discrimination by people who think he is Hispanic.

My impression, by the way, from running scenarios such as these past quite a few people, is that a large percentage of well-educated Americans would get each of these wrong. How well did you do?