c Four decades and counting, and the U.S. Census Bureau still is struggling with how to count Hispanics.
Since 1980 the standard U.S. census form has included some sort of question meant to measure the number of Hispanics in the country. Experiments with the process started in 1970.
For the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau again tried different ways to count this large demographic that defies simple categorization. Currently the standard form includes a race question and a separate question for "Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin." The last go around, more than 480,000 targeted households received experimental questionnaires that had a combined question that tackled race and Hispanic origin in one section.
Now, the Census Bureau is considering a switch to the experimental combined question based on results of its 2010 test. Though just a proposal, some critics have said it will lead to more confusion and the undercounting of Hispanics.
"The findings from this research provide promising strategies to address the challenges and complexities of race and Hispanic origin measurement and reporting issues in our rapidly diversifying society," Robert Groves, Census Bureau director, said in a statement this month when results of the experimental questionnaire were released. "This is another step in an ongoing discussion about how we can better understand the changing diversity of our nation. The results will guide upcoming research as the Census Bureau looks toward the 2020 Census."
The whole process is a challenge for the Census Bureau and a confusing mess for respondents because the concepts of "Hispanic" and "Latino" are artificial constructs meant to unify people with common cultural roots that do not necessarily translate from one country to another.
"Many Hispanics, especially those who are immigrants, are unsure about how to respond to census questions about race because the concept of race that we use in the U.S. is not so firmly entrenched in Latin American cultures," said Shannon Monnat, a UNLV assistant professor of sociology who studies demography.
Because "Hispanic" was defined as an ethnicity and not a race on the 2010 Census form, about 18 million Latinos (37 percent) used the "some other race" category, Monnat pointed out.
Leo Murrieta is one of them.
Murrieta works for the civil engagement group Mi Familia Vota and participated in a campaign to encourage people to fill out their census forms. He said the questions confused him. He does not identify as "white," so he put down "other" for race and checked the box for Hispanic of Mexican origin.
But even that did not really sit well with Murrieta.
"You know I'll give you one answer about how I identify myself, but I could hand the phone to two of my Hispanic colleagues and they'd give you two different answers from mine," he said. "A lot of people identify with their country of origin and may like to be called Mexican over Hispanic or Latino. I don't. I became a citizen in 2010. This is my country and I'm proud of it. Some like to be called Latino, and some don't. Others like to be called Hispanic, but there are naturalists who don't because Hispanic is a made-up term."
Accurate figures are important because they aid the federal government in determining compliance with the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act and other laws. Census results also are used by governments at various levels for assigning funding for public programs.
Currently, the census identifies Asian-American as the fastest-growing racial group in the country, at a rate of 43 percent from 2000 to 2010. During that same period, the Hispanic population also grew at a 43 percent clip, the Census Bureau reported, but Hispanic is considered an ethnicity.
In April the Pew Research Center published a report from a survey that verified cramming everyone together into one category was problematic.
More than half of the Pew survey respondents said they preferred to use their country of origin as an identifier, 24 percent said they would use "Hispanic" most often and 21 percent labeled themselves "American."
The Census Bureau found the combined question significantly reduced nonresponses to the race question, and it reduced the number of people using "some other race" from 7.1 percent to 0.2 percent.
Separate research by sociologists and demographers Charles Hirschman, Richard Alba and Reynolds Farley, showed a "dramatic" shift in results, Monnat said, that largely mirrored the result of the U.S. Census Bureau's experiment.
The research showed that with the type of combined question the census used, 56 percent of Hispanics would select Hispanic as their sole identity, with another 19 percent selecting Hispanic and some other group, usually white. Nonresponse to the race question declined from 13 percent to less than 1 percent.
Some Latino political organizations are concerned the change to a combined question will treat Hispanic as a mutually exclusive category and thus lead to a lower number of people who identify as Hispanic, but Monnat said that fear was not backed by empirical data.
"They should make a conscious effort to get ethnicity and background, but maybe they should be less specific about separating people out by racial categories," Murrieta said. "We can do it ourselves. Everyone should fill it out, and whether or not the response is Latino, Hispanic, Mexican, Guatemalan, or whatever, just get a response. The question of boxing us into ethnic and racial categories both overcomplicates and oversimplifies things at the same time. It's a confusing topic. I don't get it. People don't get it. Who does?"
Unfortunately for the Census Bureau, which will take its struggle to measure the Hispanic population into a fifth decade, the identity question appears to be getting more complicated.
"Historically, the standard sociological practice has been to apply 'race' to distinctions based on physical appearance and apply 'ethnicity' to distinctions based on culture and language, but ethnicity now is used increasingly as an inclusive term to categorize all groups considered to share a common descent," Monnat said. "Demographers have been predicting a much wider range of responses on census forms and increased blurring of racial categories as minority populations continue to grow and interracial marriage increases over the next several decades. The children produced from these unions will not fit neatly into any of the standard census categories.
"A more realistic approach may be to use the concept of 'origins' rather than the traditional concepts of race and ethnicity," she said.
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