Last year I was in charge of filling out the census for my house. Being a history student, I was very excited to be involved in history. My roommates, however, were not as thrilled. I wanted to be as accurate as possible, so I hounded them for days to help me. Finally we sat down together to fill out the census. We were doing really well until we got to QUESTION EIGHT.
Being from Southern California we knew all about question eight because it was all over the news. What surprised us was the conversation it sparked. On the 2010 US census Latinos and Hispanics were not included in the race section (question nine). If you are Latino or Hispanic you can answer question eight with your country of origin and then answer question nine with your race. My Latino roommate was upset because she could not decide which race to choose. To further complicate matters the race choices only included White, African American, American Indian, or many different Asian origins.
One roommate was Taiwanese American, so she wrote in Taiwanese. This was a clear choice because of the many, many PSAs encouraging Taiwanese Americans to write-in Taiwanese. For my El Salvadorian roommate, she identified as Native Central American; however, American Indian did not seem to include indigenous people from Central and South America. She was upset because Taiwanese Americans were encouraged to write-in Taiwanese, while the mainstream news outlets encouraged Latinos and Hispanics to choose between White and African American. In the end she wrote-in El Salvadorian because she didn’t fit into the race boxes presented on the 2010 census.
Why are Latino and Hispanic origins not counted as races on the US Census?
According to the LA Times, Census officials say they are adhering to race-category standards laid out for all federal agencies in 1997 by the White House Office of Management and Budget. The problem with question eight is that, when forced to choose between White and African American, many Latinos and Hispanics will choose White. The term White comes with the impression that the person who was forced to choose White receives the socioeconomic opportunities many Whites receive in this country. In reality, most Latino or Hispanic people are not perceived as White and do not benefit from the outward appearance of Whiteness.
For the 2020 census, the 1997 policies will be re-examined. It will be interesting to see what question eight’s fate will be. In the meantime, the 2010 census is another example of how American ideas of race are constructed and perceived by different people.