The new census racial categories 'erase' Afro Latinos

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has just issued new standards for collecting data on race and ethnicity in an attempt to be more inclusive of our nation’s growing diversity since its last revision in 1997. The update most notably includes a “Middle Eastern or North African/MENA” category for the first time. Unfortunately the new standards also create a whole new form of exclusion when it comes to Afro Latinos, and this exclusion endangers the full enforcement of civil rights.

The racial and ethnic classifications that the OMB originally devised in 1977, were for the specific purpose of facilitating the application of civil rights laws. By comparing the demographic count of individuals by race to the statistical presence of each racial group in workplaces, housing purchases and rentals, and access to mortgages, racial disparities can be uncovered and then investigated for discriminatory practices. The data is also used to design electoral districts and enforce the Voting Rights Act protections against discrimination. The revised 1997 format first asked whether someone’s ethnicity was Hispanic/Latino-Origin, followed by a second question of what was their race (American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Other). This two-question format explicitly recognized that within Latino ethnicity there are racial differences.

The new OMB standard now combines both inquiries into a single question of “What is your race and/ or ethnicity?” and collapses Latino/Hispanic ethnic identity into the list of ethno-racial categories with Black, White, Asian, American Indian, Middle Eastern, Native Hawaiian. While the OMB proposal is not technically naming Latino as a race, by inserting “Hispanic/Latino” as a category commensurate with “Black,” it not only situates blackness as foreign to Latino identity, it also encourages a view of the Black category as only pertaining to non-Latinos in ways that erase the very existence of Afro Latinos and discourages multiple box checking.

OMB’s constricted view of who gets to count as Black, is illustrated by their definition of “Black or African American.” The definition encompasses individuals “with origins in any Black racial groups of Africa,” but is narrowed by OMB’s restrictive explanatory examples. OMB Black origin examples include multiracial nations like Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, but explicitly exclude majority Black nations in Latin America like the Dominican Republic and Cuba. OMB Blacks can be French speakers with origins from Haiti, but not Portuguese speakers with origins from Brazil. The exclusionary effects of the OMB definition and examples are empirically underscored by an analysis of Current Population Survey data, showing that Latinos are less likely to provide a racial response in a single ethno-racial combined question, than when two separate questions on ethnicity and race are provided. Furthermore, Pew Research has documented how Afro Latinos are more fully counted with questions that do not have them worry that the Black category is only meant for non-Latinos.

For Afro Latinos the new OMB race and ethnicity standard erases how they experience racism compounded by their blackness. This is not an insignificant population, given the fact that approximately 90 percent of the enslaved Africans who survived the Middle Passage voyage were taken to Latin America and the Caribbean. We need data that can measure the existence of racial disparities amongst Latinos. 

As researchers have long noted, there are distinct social outcomes based on labor market access, housing segregation, educational attainment and prison sentencing that vary for Latinos if they are dark-skinned and especially if they are visibly Afro Latino. Thus even though Afro Latinos demonstrate higher levels of education than white Latinos, it is white Latinos who have higher earnings, lower poverty status, lower unemployment rates and possess more assets. Moreover, too often, Latino decisionmakers deny Afro Latinos access to jobs, homes, public accommodations and fair treatment in schools and the criminal justice system. These powerful and disturbing economic and labor market disparities have been able to be documented thanks to the former separate race and ethnicity questions; a statistical viability now under threat.

Until the OMB reforms its new data collection standard to more accurately count Afro Latinos and clarify the difference between race and ethnicity, it is imperative that OMB and the Census Bureau be proactive in mitigating the harm to Afro Latino populations. The AfroLatino Coalition collective of scholars, NGOs and community leaders, recommends a number of concrete actions. Paramount amongst the recommendations is that the Latinos who do simultaneously select multiple ethno-racial categories such as Latino and Black given the OMB authorization for respondents to check multiple boxes, not be misclassified as not racially Black.

The misclassification of Latinos who indicate their Hispanic origin and also check a racial classification is not an abstract concern, given prior Census Bureau practices. For example, with the 2020 Census, if a Latino respondent checked the “White” racial category and also inserted a Latino ethnic origin such as “Argentinean” in the category’s request to specify one’s white ethnic origins, the Census Bureau counted that as an indication of a Latino checking two or more races to express a multiracial identity. The white Latino of Argentinean descent was no longer white in the Census Bureau’s 2020 classification scheme. As a result, Latino white-only racial category checking declined by 14 million people, at the same time that the number of Latinos tabulated as white in combination with some other race increased by 15 million. This is how the white Hispanic multiracial count increased by 1,106 percent from 2010 to 2020. With one small administrative sleight of hand, the 2020 census transformed white Latinos into “multiracial” Latinos whose white privilege as compared to Afro Latino exclusion could no longer be readily quantified.

Refraining from misclassifying Latinos who clearly indicate both their Hispanic ethnicity and a racial identification is the first step required to curtail some of the harm of the new OMB standard. In addition, the OMB should clarify the distinction between race and ethnicity as distinct sociopolitical categories. Highlighting this difference will help respondents understand the importance of selecting options in both categories.

While we wait for the OMB to rectify its misstep, other government entities can also be of help with the important project of public information. Federal, state and local agencies should provide resources to community-based organizations to broadcast accurate census information emphasizing the difference between race and ethnicity in the new question format and the importance of selecting at least one racial category and one ethnic category.

The gathering of population statistics may be viewed by many residents as a mundane domestic administrative task, but the patterns it reveals provides concrete data about racial hierarchies and exclusion. Without it, systemic racism is rendered invisible. When it comes to racial equity there are times when the devil is truly in the details. However, these are details that can and should be addressed in the pursuit of a genuine multiracial democracy.

Tanya Katerí Hernández is the Author of “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality,” and is the Archibald R. Murray Professor of Law at Fordham Law School, N.Y.

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