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The U.S. census will now include a checkbox for 'Latino/Hispanic' under its race category

For decades, Latinos have had no box to check under the race category on the U.S. census. There were options for white, Black, American Indian or Asian. So, Latinos would often check “other” or not answer the question at all. There’s long been a separate question for “Latino origin.”

But now, that’s changing. The census will include a few new boxes — one that says “Latino/Hispanic” and another that says “Middle Eastern/North African.” It will be a check all that apply approach.

And, while some are worried about what it might mean for certain groups like Afro Latinos, Julie Dowling said it’s a huge improvement for what she calls “data equity."

Dowling is an associate professor in Latino studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago and wrote a book about Mexican Americans and race. She also served on the U.S. Census Bureau’s advisory committee on race and ethnicity and wrote about the census changes in the Los Angeles Times recently. She spoke more about the issue with The Show.

Full conversation

JULIE DOWLING: So that the history, you know, of this format, basically, we had, Mexican was on there as a race a long time ago in like 1930. And at the time, people didn't want to be a race on the census because they don't want to be racialized. This is the time of the deep, deep depression and deportations and people didn't want to be discriminated against. And so they lobbied to sort of have that removed. Then the census Bureau used a number of different things, Spanish surname. And then finally, in 1980 on all census forms, we had a Hispanic origin question. So that question precedes the race question.

So about half of Latinos were not able to give a racial response that that works for them based in the race spot. So we saw people not answering the race question, and we saw people putting other and writing in Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Latino, Hispanic, whatever their particular background was on the other race line. But there is no other, I mean, that's not a race, right? And so we're getting to a point where basically other race is the second largest race in the country. And what do we do with this? Like we can't and, and you can't stay in other, like they have to reallocate you, what are they going to do with that box?

And so because the way in which the bureau was with sort of having to handle the data and having to sort of make up race for other people and often end up dumping the people who were in other into the white category, it's really kind of muddying the waters for understanding racial diversity in our country, right? Because we have a lot of people who are not white that are being dumped into a category that doesn't describe them, which makes it hard to talk about the white population in the U.S., right?

And it also means that we're denying the racialized experiences and identities of people who, who feel like they walk through the world as Latino/Hispanic or as Middle Eastern. And yet there's no way to express that basically on the format. And this can lead to things like undercounts, that people don't fill out the form at all because they don't know how to fill it out and can't. Anything that's a barrier to you filling out your census form is a barrier to you participating in the census in the first place. And we had a 5% undercount of Latinos in the 2020 census, which is huge amounts of money to our communities that are lost because people don't find the form to be user friendly.

LAUREN GILGER: So you, you write that this is a big step forward in advancing data equity. Is that what you mean by that? Like give us a little bit of context in terms of what that phrase data equity means.

DOWLING: Well, it's really hard to have accurate data on your community when half of your community isn't able to find the box to fill out for themselves, right? And so having that kind of recognition, for a number of people in my book, too, that I interviewed and others, you know, not having a box that represents you and your experiences and feeling that you're sort of like not, you don't belong, you're not here, you're not included. So about that kind of equity, also having more accurate data on our communities from this because the data that we're getting from the race question when half of it's imputed for the Latino community is like not very good data. We want to see racial diversity in our community. We wanna see issues like are there differences between white Latinos, perhaps, and people who identify as Black and Latino as Afro Latino? But right now, we can't look at those differences.

I think it also the another important thing that this brings to the conversation is that by not thinking of Latinos as being a group comparable to other groups that deserve that kind of representation, we also end up falling out of a lot of statistics that are out there. And so when COVID-19 was happening, for example, we had a huge crisis with a lot of deaths among Latinos in this country because many of them were frontline workers. And we really didn't have some of the numbers we wanted to be able to talk about that because some of these studies didn't include Latino because it's not a race.

And so I think it's really important for having accurate information about our community for having us, but also for having us be on par with other groups, for having us have a seat at the table with other groups to be able to talk about our racialized issues and discrimination. That that's an important component of that equity as well.

GILGER: There are some critics here, though. There are some people who are concerned that, you know, this will reduce the numbers of some groups actually like Afro Latinos that you mentioned. Do you think that could be a problem?

DOWLING: Well, I think that there's a lot of testing that's been done on this so far. That was a concern that I personally had going into this when they were trying to see, how can we fix this? I was like, what's gonna happen here because we still, we still wanna have our diversity for our community that's gonna be there. But the numbers are actually the same for Afro Latinos or even slightly higher. Like the number is around 2% that check both Black and Latino and that number remained consistent across a number of different ways they tested the question. It was even slightly higher in this format that's going forward.

GILGER: OK. So get ready for the very kind of meta question, right? Like does this blur the lines between race and ethnicity? There are concerns about that.

DOWLING: Latinos in this country have been racialized, right? So that line is already blurred. There's a longstanding history of discrimination, including things like separate schooling for Mexican Americans in the Southwest, restrictive covenants and housing that forbid Mexicans and Puerto Ricans from living in certain neighborhoods. I mean a race in sociology, we talk about all of these categories are constructed, right? A race we talk about is being tied to racialization and discrimination. The categories that we construct in society as being important determinants of your life chances and your experiences, right? And how you're treated by other people in society.

So we already have a racialized experience that many Latinos experience as being Latino, which is why they wanna answer that. This is why so many of them are gravitating to answering that for their race in the form in the first place.

GILGER: So what are your hopes for this? Like I know you're you're kind of a census nerd, right? Like when you get these numbers back in some years here and you can dig through this new data and the way it's been separated in these new ways, what do you think you'll find?

DOWLING: What I really want to see is just a move out of that other box. To be able to look at these data, to know that the data that we have is more meaningful that when someone checked, for example, the research from the bureau showed that when someone checked that they were white and Latino in this new format, they actually were. Like they were a white Cuban or they were somebody maybe of mixed background, white and Latino background, but it was a meaningful identity for them and not just having data that doesn't really make sense. They will also have a category that's on par with other groups to where we're not able to be lopped off and not included in important research that's being done. That our numbers will also have to be included along with other groups.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.