Will Latinos check "black" on the census?

Despite ancestry, many Latinos won't identify selves as of African descent. Maldonado examines impact on census

Published March 31, 2010 9:32PM (EDT)

Last week, I noted that conceptions of race in Latin American are different from those commonly held in the U.S. Since then, I have received many comments both on Concurring Opinions and offline, and have listened to several programs and panels on the U.S. Census and Latinos. In this post, I want to explore why Latinos, even those who were raised in the U.S. or have lived here most of their adult lives continue to reject U.S. conceptions of race. After all, immigrants often adopt the norms of their new country after a relatively short period of time (a generation?) so why not adopt U.S. definitions of race?

Undoubtedly, one reason why Latinos reject U.S. definitions of race is prejudice against Blacks. Some Latinos deny their African ancestry because they hold negative views about African-Americans. This is illustrated in a public service video that seeks to encourage Latinos of African descent to identify as both Hispanic and Black on the 2010 Census. In this video, a Latina grandmother rejects her grandson’s friends because she erroneously assumes that they are African-American when, actually, they are Latinos of African ancestry.

Most Latinos are proud of their Spanish and indigenous ancestry, and some spend a lot of time tracing these roots. However, some Latinos rarely acknowledge their African ancestry and those that do often attempt to minimize it. Some Latinos say things like “En mi familia no hay negros (There are no Blacks in my family)" when they know that their grandmother or great-grandfather is of African descent. Latinos’ denial of their African ancestry impacts their ability to protect their civil rights. For example, as Professor Tanya Hernandez argued in a 2002 article, Puerto Ricans on the island rarely file race discrimination claims because doing so would require them to admit that they are Black.

Latinos’ biases against Blacks have been well documented. Studies have found that some Latinos, especially older Latinos and recent immigrants, prefer to maintain social distance from African Americans, such as identifying African Americans as the least desirable neighbors and marriage partners. This might explain why intermarriage rates between Latinos and Caucasians are higher than between Latinos and African-Americans. Latinos’ biases against Blacks are often unconscious. For example, Latinos intending to complement someone who is Black might say things like “aunque es negro, no hay mejor hombre que ese (even though he’s Black, there’s no better man than he)" or “aunque es negra, tiena un corazon blanco (even though she’s Black, she has a white heart, meaning that person has a good heart)".

Yet, despite this evidence of anti-Black sentiment, I think that some Latinos will refuse to identify as Black in the Census, not because they are prejudiced against Blacks or wish to deny their African ancestry, but rather because (1) they really do not understand U.S. genealogical definitions of race, or (2) they consciously reject these definitions. U.S. definitions of race, as evidenced by the one-drop rule, are the result of a system that sought to maintain white racial purity and supremacy. In Latin-America, almost everyone is of mixed race. The Spaniards who landed in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, etc. had sexual relations (sometimes consensual, sometimes not) with indigenous women and the African slaves they brought to the New World. The children of those unions are a mix of different races. Thus, few people from Latin America are just one race.

As one of the comments to my previous post pointed out, there is no such thing as biological race. We cannot tell from looking at a person’s genes whether she is Caucasian, Black, Asian, or Native-American. Further, there are often greater genetic variations between people believed to be of the same race than between individuals believed to be of different races. So if race is not biologically determined, why does the Census keep asking us to identify our race and why shouldn’t we simply write “human” or ignore the question?

The reason is that race, as socially constructed, continues to matter. We still make certain assumptions about people when we first meet them based primarily on what we believe to be their race. The police and immigration officials make assumptions about who belongs or who is more likely to have committed a crime based on race. Employers and landlords make decisions as to who to hire or rent an apartment based on race.

Latinos who appear to be of African descent have high unemployment rates and are more likely than other Latinos to live below the poverty level. They are also likely to be perceived as African-American and to experience racism and its effects. According to the nonprofit group AfroLatin@ forum, Latinos of African descent should identify as both Latino and Black in the Census because when they are not counted as Black, “it deprives organizations of resources they need to improve the lives of [Afro-Latinos].” Others fear that when Latinos select “White” it “risks leaving a mistaken impression that they enjoy certain socioeconomic opportunities we associate with whites in this country . . . when in reality [Hispanics] are near the bottom in areas like education and upward mobility.” I agree, but I am skeptical that Latinos will identify as Black in the Census.

By Solangel Maldonado

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2010 Census Race