The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Biden Administration Considers Whether Hispanic/Latino Should Be A Racial, Not Ethnic, Classification


The AP reports that the Biden administration is considering changes to official OMB racial and ethnic classifications. The most prominent proposals are to change the Hispanic/Latino category from an ethnic to a racial category, and to add a new MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) category. I will write about the latter in a later blog post, but here I will focus on the Hispanic/Latino classification.

As discussed in my forthcoming book, when the federal Office of Management and Budget invented the Hispanic category– Latino was not added until twenty years later–in the late 1970s, it was subject to several controversies. First, there was the question of what to name this novel classification–previously, what we now call "Hispanics" were generally either considered generically white by the federal government, or listed separately as Mexican, Puerto Rican, and sometimes Cuban. In the early 1970s, the government started to use classifications like "Spanish-speaking" or "Spanish-surnamed," but these were ultimately deemed inadequate and imprecise for rather obvious reasons. Hispanic was chosen even though at the time few people thought of themselvse as "Hispanic."

Second, there was controversy over how to define the category. Should it include white people of Spanish descent? (Yes!) Should the American Indian category instead be "Original Peoples of the Western Hemisphere" to include Latinos of indigenous origin? (No!) Should the Hispanic classification be considered a race or an ethnicity? (Ethnicity!) And should forms asking about race and ethnicity include "Hispanic" as an alternative to white, black, Asian, or American Indian, or should Hispanic identity be asked about separately from the racial classifications? (At first, institutions were given the option of doing either, but in 1997 they were ordered to ask about Hispanic ethnicity separately; it took the Department of Education and the EEOC another decade to comply. The SBA's guidance on disadvantaged business enterprises still depicts Hispanic as a racial category.)

This did not end the controversy. As I explain in the book:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Census Bureau proposed making "Hispanic" a racial category akin to "Black" or "White." Most major Latino organizations aggressively opposed the change.

Census Bureau employees specializing in racial demography also strongly opposed categorizing Hispanic as a racial identity. Their opposition reflected deference to civil rights and ethnic identity organizations. These groups worried that creating a Hispanic racial category would reduce their groups' reported populations and therefore their political clout.

African American groups feared that Afro-Latinos would identify as Hispanic, not Black; American Indian organizations were concerned that some individuals of indigenous heritage would identify as Hispanic, not Native American; and Asian American activists worried that some Filipinos would identify as Hispanic and not Asian. The bureau ultimately shelved the proposal.

In 1997, the OMB rejected a request from the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, to combine the race and Hispanic origin questions into a single Race/Ethnicity category. In 2018, the Census Bureau recommended that "Hispanic or Latino" be changed from an ethnicity to a race category. The Trump administration, however, declined to adopt this recommendation.

The move to change Hispanic to a racial category reflects a problem with American racial classifications. Approximately fifty percent of American Hispanics have consistently considered themselves to be white in private surveys and on census forms (I understand the percentage was lower in 2020, but I haven't yet seen a good analysis of the data), and a small percentage identify as black. The rest don't find any of the racial categories congenial because they are of mixed European/indigenous (and sometimes others) ancestry. This is reflected in the following anecdote in my book:

I recently helped a native of Peru of mixed Spanish and indigenous origin apply for a green card. She was mystified by the form asking her to classify herself by one of the standard American racial categories. None of the racial options fit how she perceived herself. The American Indian category on the form, which might otherwise have covered her Inca ancestry, is limited to North American Indians.

Trying to be helpful, I asked, "Eres blanca?" ("Are you white?")

She replied, "No, no soy blanca." ("No, I am not white.")

"Pero tú no eres negra." ("But you are not black.")

"No, no soy negra. Soy mestiza." ("No, I am not black. I am a mestiza [Spanish-Indian].")

One possible solution, suggested by some scholars and activists, would be to replace the Hispanic classification with an Indigenous Latino/Mestizo classification for those who so identify, while white and black (and Asian) Hispanics could identify by those racial classifications.

However, "there is little appetite for such change in the government. Hispanic groups that have built their political power based on their diverse, multiracial constituents being perceived as having a common Hispanic identity are even less likely to pursue such a reform."

So we are left with a choice between the status quo and a Hispanic racial category. A Hispanic racial category creates an obvious problem: to the extent that one thinks that "race" is a salient way of dividing people, it's hard to come up with a good definition of race that applies to Hispanics, whose ancestry can be any combination of European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian, and Indigenous. It's dubious to even consider "Hispanic or Latino" classification an ethnicity, given the cultural heterogeneity within the category. Michael Lind argued in Salon back in 2012 that the category is "artificial" and "preposterous." It "include[s] blond, blue-eyed South Americans of German descent as well as Mexican-American mestizos and Puerto Ricans of predominantly African descent." 

Artificial and preposterous does not necessarily stop government bean counters, as shown by the "Asian American" classification, which includes everyone from Pakistanis to Filipinos. But the AP also reports that Asian American groups are asking the government to rethink this problematic, overbroad "racial" category. It would be ironic if the government did so, while creating a new one.