The Volokh Conspiracy

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My Comment on the OMB's Proposal to Turn "Hispanic" into a Race


The federal Office of Management and Budget has requested comments on several proposals to change the official federal racial and ethnic classifications. One proposal is to merge the ethnic question (are you Hispanic/Latino or not?) with the racial one (are you black/African American, white, Asian American, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander?), so individiuals would now be asked whether they are Hispanic, black, whites, etc. in one question. The underlying problem is that many Americans check the Hispanic box, but then find that as "mestizos" (people of mixed European/Indigenous heritage) there is no appropriate race box for them to check.

So here's what I wrote:

In this comment, I argue that the race and ethnicity classifications should not be combined into a single question. There is only one "ethnic" classification recognized by OMB, and that is "Hispanic/Latino." Hispanic/Latino is much too diverse to be considered a true ethnicity to begin with, and, as a classification that includes people of any combination of Indigenous, European, African, and Asian origin, with classification members whose appearances reflect the broad range of human appearances, it's absurd to treat it as akin to a race by placing it in the same category as "white," "black," etc.

Rather, to the address the problems of the inappropriate "race" choices for Latinos, which creates confusion among those of partial or full Indigenous origin, the government should abolish the Hispanic/Latino ethnic classification, and instead add a racial "Indigenous Latino/Mestizo" classification. White Hispanics would check the white box. Black Hispanics would check the black box. And Hispanics of Indigenous origin would check the Indigenous Latino/Mestizo box. People of mixed background could check whichever combination of boxes applied to their background.

In my book, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America (Bombardier Press 2022), chapters 1 and 2 tell the story of how "Hispanic/Latino" became an official American minority classification. In brief, identification for federal statistical purposes, which started in the 1950s for federal contract compliance, was originally not self-identified, but instead relied on employers and others to identify members of minority groups by sight. Many Puerto Rican and Mexican Americans have dark complexions, revealing full or partial non-European ancestry. As a result, these individuals were both subject to racial discrimination, which meant that they were seen as needing federal protection, but also they could be identified as "nonwhite" by those in charge of classifying them.

Over the next two decades, various political forces, including Richard Nixon's White House and certain activist groups, thought it useful to create an umbrella designation for all American with origins in Spanish-speaking countries. At the same time, in the early 1970s classification began a dramatic shift to self-identification.

Suddenly, millions of people who had always been considered, and considered themselves, to be white based on full or dominant European heritage, were now deemed to be members of a "Hispanic" minority. But recognizing the absurdity of considering the multi-racial Hispanic classification to be a separate race, Statistical Directive 15 instead dictated that "Hispanic" was an ethnic classification, the only official ethnic classification the federal government recognizes.

[Comment then continues with material on the history of the Hispanic classification from my book Classified, discussing the arbitrariness of the classification….]

That said, some Hispanics face discrimination based on being of the perception that they are members of a nonwhite race, because they have a substantial percentage of Asian, African, or (most often) Indigenous heritage. Hispanics who are of full or partial Asian or African descent currently can check off the "Hispanic" box, and then Asian or African. However, many Hispanics, likely including the vast majority of those who check off the other "some other race" box on forms when available, are of mixed European and Indigenous origin (known in much of Latin America as "Mestizos"), or fully of Indigenous origin.

Thanks to strong opposition from American Indian groups, the Directive 15 definition of American Indian excludes Indigenous Americans who do not descend from North American (excluding Mexico) tribes.

The solution to that problem is not to treat "Hispanicness" as a race, or the equivalent of a race. There is no logical reason why a self-identified white person of European descent from Argentina or Spain should be in a different "racial" classification than a white person from Greece, Italy, or France.

Rather, to give Hispanics an opportunity to self-identify by their racial background, the Hispanic/Latino category should be abolished entirely. White Hispanics would check the white box. Black Hispanics would check the black box. And Hispanics of Indigenous origin would check the box for a new category called something like Indigenous Latino/Mestizo. People of mixed background could check whichever combination of boxes applied to their background.

Like the barrier to including Indigenous-origin Latinos in the Native American classification, the barrier to creating an Indigenous Latino/Mestizo classification is primarily political; Latino groups and activists oppose such a classification because it would substantially reduce their constituent numbers.

If OMB chooses not to replace the Hispanic/Latino ethnic classification with a narrower Indigenous Latino racial classification, it should modify the current classification so that it is more akin to a true ethnic classification. Currently, the classification requires only that a person be of "Spanish origin or culture." Instead, the classification should require "Spanish origin with significant ties to Spanish or Latino culture." Currently, everyone from Sephardic Jews whose ancestors left Spain around 1492 to people with one distant Mexican American ancestor, with the rest European, may qualify as Hispanic, regardless of their lack of ties to Hispanic or Latino culture. An individual with distant Spanish-speaking ancestry and no ties to the Hispanic and Latino culture can hardly be said to belong to the same "ethnic group" as a recent immigrant from Guatemala, and including them in the same group drastically reduces any usefulness the classification may have.