Going Beyond Black and White, Hispanics in Census Pick ‘Other’
Patria Rodriguez, an advertising sales director for a women’s magazine in New York, takes after her father. With light brown skin and thick, curly hair, she says she resembles the actress Rosie Perez, but some people have asked her if she is Italian, and others have told her she looks like the singer Sade.
Like many Hispanic Americans, Ms. Rodriguez does not think of herself as black or white. ”I acknowledge I have both black and white ancestry in me, but I choose to label myself in nonracial terms: Latina. Hispanic. Puerto Rican. Nuyorican,” Ms. Rodriguez, 31, said. ”I feel that being Latina implies mixed racial heritage, and I wish more people knew that. Why should I have to choose?”
As the Hispanic population booms, the fluid ways that she and other Latinos view their racial identities are drawing more attention and fueling the national debate over racial classifications — what they mean, what they should be and whether they are needed at all.
Now members of the United States’ largest minority group, the nation’s 38.8 million Hispanics, nearly half of them immigrants, harbor notions of race that are as varied as their Spanish and that often clash with the more bipolar views of many other Americans.
White? Black? Try ”moreno,” ”trigueno” or ”indio,” terms that indicate skin shades and ancestry and accommodate several hues.
This heterogeneity has stumped the Census Bureau. In its 2000 count, almost half the Hispanic respondents refused to identify themselves by any of the five standard racial categories on the census forms: white, black, Asian, American Indian or Alaska native and a category that includes natives of Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. The agency has since been surveying Hispanics to find a way to pinpoint them racially.
In the census, respondents can mark their ethnicity as Hispanic, but then they are asked to choose a racial label. In 2000, almost half of the Hispanic respondents, 48 percent, identified themselves as white. Only 2 percent chose black.
But from the light-complexioned to the dark, more than 14 million, or more than 42 percent of all Latino respondents, marked the box labeled ”some other race” and wrote in such disparate identities as Mayan, Tejano and mestizo. (An additional 6 percent said they were members of two or more races.)
The category ”some other race” was used almost exclusively by Hispanics; of all those who chose it, 97 percent were Latino. Claudette Bennett, chief of the Census Bureau’s racial-statistics branch, said follow-up research showed that a large portion of these respondents wanted Hispanic to be considered their race.
A recent study by the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York at Albany noted that the popularity of the ”some other race” category came at the expense of the ”white” category, which was the choice of the majority of Latino respondents in 1980.
”There may have been a sense that being white was part of the process of being assimilated,” said John R. Logan, Mumford’s director. ”There’s a trend toward rejecting whiteness as a way of expressing success.”
”That’s the big change over time. There’s a Latino identity that’s neither white nor black, and it’s a positive identity.”
While there are clearly white Hispanics and black Hispanics, many more come from racially mixed stock, with white, black and American Indian or other indigenous strains. Even within one family, one sibling may look black by many Americans’ standards, another white, and another in between. And factors as disparate as hair texture, education, income and even nationality matter almost as much as skin color in racial self-image.
Israel Coats, 24, a Dominican who moved to New York when he was 11 and is now studying marketing at Baruch College, is black in physical features and in the way he identifies himself. But in the Dominican Republic, he says, he is called ”indio,” Indian. That is because even the darkest-skinned Dominican often regards ”black” as a synonym for Haitian; the two nations, which share the island of Hispaniola, have a long history of conflict.
Physical appearance is not even a factor in how some Latinos sort themselves into racial categories.
Mario Goderich, 36, a police officer in Miami Beach, Fla., who has light brown hair, green eyes and the white skin of his Puerto Rican mother, identifies himself on the census forms as Hispanic and white. His father, Rene Goderich, 62, also identifies himself as white, even though he describes himself as ”jabao,” the Cuban term for a light-skinned mulatto.
”Over here there’s no ‘jabao’ or ‘mulatto,’ so I say white,” said the elder Mr. Goderich, who is from Santiago, Cuba, and lives in New Jersey. ”We’re all mixed.”
Ms. Rodriguez, the advertising sales director, said one reason she is uncomfortable picking one race is because the words white and black carry political baggage that she does not feel she shares. ”White means mostly privilege and black means overcoming obstacles, a history of civil rights,” she said. ”As a Latina, I can’t try to claim one of these.”
Among people of Mexican descent, who make up more than 65 percent of Hispanics in the United States, the racial background includes a strong indigenous influence. Eva Blanco, 32, a college admissions official in San Jose, Calif., said she wished there were a census box labeled ”red.”
”In college, a friend would call me a Mayan princess, because I have the nose you see in the pictures of Mayans,” she said. ”I feel there’s nothing that describes my race per se. For the most part, I say I’m Mexican.”
Ellis Cose, who examined racial identity in Latin America for his 1997 book, ”Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World,” said these malleable views were quickening the pace of a shift in this country that began in the 1960’s, after legal segregation ended and intermarriage became more common.
Growing numbers of interracial unions are also making the color line a moving target. By 2000, the census showed, interracial couples, including those in which one person was of Hispanic origin, made up 7 percent of marriages and 13 percent to 15 percent of households with unmarried partners.
”For the first time, the American construct of race is making room for a large group of folks it never made room for before,” said Mr. Cose, who is also a contributing editor for Newsweek.
The growing multiracial population has interfered with the government’s accounting of people by race and has become one of the top issues of research and debate among scholars. On Labor Day weekend, Harvard University drew more than 1,000 participants to a ”color lines” research conference that delved into the implications for a nation where so much depends on racial categorization: antidiscrimination and voting-rights laws, health and educational statistics and social policies like affirmative action.
Joel Perlmann, a senior scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College who was a co-editor of ”The New Race Question,” a 2002 book about how the census counts multiracial people, said the changing demographics were casting doubt on the rationale for the categories themselves.
”Where do these categories come from?” he asked. ”What are their justification? It helps delegitimize race.”
In California, a movement to shelve racial classifications altogether was behind Proposition 54, the unsuccessful measure on last month’s recall ballot that sought to halt the collection of most racial and ethnic data by the state government.
One proponent of the measure was Ward Connerly, the black California businessman who led the winning push for laws in California and Washington State that ban the consideration of race in public university admissions, hiring and government contracting. He argues that racial classifications have become so imprecise as to lose all meaning.
”We ought to be trying to find a better way of detecting discrimination than this crude way,” Mr. Connerly said, adding that he planned to bring another version of Propostition 54 to voters.
But many civil rights advocates and government officials counter that racial categories, as imperfect as they may be, are the only way to measure disparities among groups and provide remedies. And they say that the way Hispanics see themselves may ultimately be irrelevant if they are still subject to other people’s biases.
Letvia Arza-Goderich, a lawyer in Los Angeles and a cousin of Mr. Goderich, the Miami Beach police officer, said she felt that she was not regarded as white in the United States except among Latinos. Her family left Cuba in the late 1960’s, and as a teenager in Wisconsin, Ms. Arza-Goderich said, her white schoolmates regarded her as dark-skinned and used a slur to describe her. It did not matter that she had pale white skin that looked even whiter against her black wavy hair.
”We were Cubans, and that wasn’t white,” she said. ”My answer was, ‘Not that it matters, but I’m white just like you because the people I came from were from Spain.’ They’d look at you in disbelief.
”If you’re Latino, you’re not white-white in the eyes of white Americans,” Ms. Arza-Goderich said.
Still, white Hispanics are more prosperous than other Latinos, the Mumford Center study found. Hispanics who described themselves as white on the 2000 Census had the highest incomes and the lowest rates of unemployment and poverty, and they tended to live closest to non-Latino whites, the study said. Black Hispanics, who live in neighborhoods that have nearly as many African-Americans as Hispanic residents, the study found, had lower incomes and higher rates of poverty and unemployment than other Hispanic groups. In those ways they were similar to non-Hispanic blacks.
Those who identified themselves as neither white nor black, the study said, were less affluent than white Hispanics but considerably better off than black Hispanics.
Race relations among Latinos, however, are informed by starkly different experiences compared with those between other groups in America. Among Hispanics, skin color still counts, because Latin American countries have caste systems that discriminate against the dark-skinned. But Latin America did not have Jim Crow laws, or their legacy of bitterness.
Even in the United States, Hispanics who complain of discrimination by other Latinos do not cite race as a major factor, said a national survey last year by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Among those who said they were the victims of bias, the survey found, 41 percent attributed it to disparities in income and education and 34 percent to differences in country of origin. Only 8 percent said it was because of skin color, the survey said.
Hispanics, of course, are not the only ones bending racial identity. Matt Kelly, founder of the Mavin Foundation, a national organization based in Seattle that advocates for multiracial Americans, noted that in the 2000 census, nearly seven million Americans identified themselves as belonging to two or more races, not counting the Latinos who picked ”some other race.”
And the culture is offering up role models, like Halle Berry and Tiger Woods, who celebrate their multiracial background.
In Los Angeles, where Hispanics are the largest ethnic group, Ms. Arza-Goderich said she and her husband, who is also Cuban, have never discussed with their three sons ”whether they are white, or moreno or what,” she said.
”Race takes a back seat to what they listen to on their CD players, what movies they see,” she said. ”One is into Japanese anime. Another is immersed in rap. Basically it’s the ghetto culture, but ghetto doesn’t mean poor or deprived, but hip.”
Her 16-year-old, Ray, has adopted a hip-hop persona and hangs out with Vietnamese, Indian, Chicano, white and black friends. Ms. Arza-Goderich said most of them had Asian girlfriends.
”They say they’re hot,” she explained.