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Stop Sacrificing Black Latinxs: The Census & the Racial Mis-Count of Latinxs

By Zaire Z. Dinzey-Flores.

After prior derailed attempts, the Census Bureau is again aiming to combine the race and ethnicity question of the Census. If you have filled out the Census question, everyone needs to first indicate whether they are Hispanic/Latino, and then indicate their racial identity (White, African-American/Black, Asian or Pacific Islander, Native American, Asian, etc.). If the Census moves forward, this two question format will be replaced with a combined race and ethnicity question where the Latino ethnic group will have to identify themselves among other racial groups.

In combining the questions, the Census’ main concern is decreasing those 30.5% (in 2010) and 35.4% (in 2020) of Latinxs, who report themselves to be of only one “some other race” and validating the rise (from 5.4% in 2010 to 34.1% in 2020) of those who reported themselves as “Two or More Races.” The Census is also prioritizing the Latines who continue to flee the race question by refusing to identify themselves racially (13% in 2010 and 8.1% in 2020). The assumption is that these groups of Latinos under the “some other race,” “two or more races,” and those who don’t answer the question, think of themselves as existing outside the racial configuration of the U.S. The problem, to be clear, is not just the U.S. racial categories. In most geographies in Latin America, the categories have been hotly contested for centuries. Still the number of Latinos that refuse to identify racially is a thorn for the Census Bureau; it is semantically confusing and statistically meaningless. The solution should be to give it meaning and find the proper solution and not to sacrifice Afro-Latinxs.

Let’s give it meaning. The Latinx population is diverse and broad, from many countries, ethnic backgrounds, and racial experiences. A common and comfortable trope is that all Latinxs are mixed. While this “racial mixture idea” (mestizaje) subscribes to a biological basis for race that suggests that race can be found in the blood; it is not. I offer a gentle reminder that race is a social construction regardless of how many DNA tests have become popular. The realities of how groups of populations come into being through the combination of many cultural and racial backgrounds can present difficult political, social, and statistical hurdles. Many national campaigns in Latin America have sacrificed their Black populations for centuries in the name of unifying national independence movements. “We are all Latinos” movements, and their many versions (somos Cubanos, somos Puertorriqueños, Somos Colombianos, Somos Hondureños), have long privileged white and mestizo elites that would stand to gain the most, while comfortably ignoring racial inequities and any policies to address them, and erasing Afro and Black Latino Americanos. Regardless of unifying tropes and structures, racial hierarchies have always been real (e.g., blanqueamiento, enslavement, efforts to mejorar la raza, massacres, racial inequality). Latinos who are not the ideal and idealized racial products of the mix (AKA mestizos) are treated accordingly. Latinos who look and therefore are white, are privileged and rewarded. Latinos look and therefore are Black, are duly penalized. This is not a simple anecdotal or personal observation. Plenty of studies show the very real socioeconomic and health impact of these racial differences.

The response from the Census to insert the Latinx category in between the racial categories appeases and bows down to the Latinos that refuse to acknowledge and be honest about racial inequality and how race (apart from ethnicity) shapes their lives. These Latinxs have become a barrier for our ability to collect data, measure, understand, and research how race operates in Latinos’ lives. And this move to appease them today, again, like at many historical points, sacrifices Afro Latinxs.

If you’re looking to know: this is the problem with Latinidad—that it values a mestizaje trope that refuses to acknowledge and believe the experience of Latinos who are racialized outside of the parameters of the myth of racial democracy—indigenous Latinos, Black Latinos.

One hurdle to making the case for Black Latinxs is that we have seemingly declined from 2.1% to 1.8% of the Latino population between the 2010 and 2020 Census. This stands in contrast to Census results in other parts of Latin America (e.g., Mexico, Puerto Rico) where popular campaigns have led to increase in the numbers of those who identify as Afrodescendant or Black. The 2020 decline is likely being used as another argument to finalize a long-standing campaign to insert “Latinos” in the middle of a race question. However, to do this now ignores the pandemic context under which the 2020 Census was completed. Notably, Black and low-income workers were hardest hit by the pandemic in every way. Given that Black Latinos’ socioeconomic outcomes are much closer to those of African Americans’ (indicating the very power of race), and are compounded by the very experiences that result in undercounting Latinos themselves (documentation, language, etc.), the likelihood of undercounting Black/Afro-Latinos in the 2020 Census cannot be ignored. This change will only exacerbate this problem. The threat of un-counting Afro-Latinos is greater today than it has ever been.

To keep Afro Latinos alive statistically, politically, and socially, the Census has now suggested that this population should go through the extra step of imagining themselves anew, finding the right words, and taking the extra effort to literally spell themselves out one letter at a time as “Afro Cubano” in a blank space. Survey methodology best practices indicate that blank spaces are merely trash spaces for “everybody else”; insignificant spaces for those who don’t conform a substantial group to merit agglomeration; for those who don’t deserve to be counted. With this move, the Census is statistically “dumping” Black Latinos. We can, therefore, expect the numbers of Afro Latinos to continue to decline into oblivion.

The Census’ claims that reporting will not change the numbers goes against their own logics that are pushing for an identifiable place (checkbox) for Latinos among the racial category. The purpose of the move is to facilitate the angst of those Latinos who flee the race question by marking themselves “Some Other Race” or don’t answer the question altogether. This move sacrifices Afro Latinxs statistical existence; which essentially means that we will not exist in any governmental and institutional spheres that follows the dictates of the Census when recording race and ethnic data.

In new publications in response to the “Latino is not a Race” campaign, the Census shows how researchers and statistical division reports show the Hispanic category as an agglomerate when attending to civil rights legislation. Unfortunately, researchers in and outside of academia, commonly fall victim to this “statistical mestizaje” tendency and reproduce the statistical elision of Black Latinos. This is likely informed by the absence of Black Latina scholars and researchers among those who design and analyze the data. Social scientists largely ignorant of the reality of racial experience of Latinxs have been calling the shots in how to collect, count, and analyze data. This argument cannot be the basis for a decision moving forward. The objective of any scientific research enterprise is to improve the reliability and validity of the data. Especially at this moment when the continued impact of race has been inescapably obvious, we have to account for the racial experience of the fastest growing ethnic population in the U.S.

If combined, the full Black Latinx experience will become uncountable. It will be lost and averaged out to the experience of White, Mestizo, Indigneous, Asian Latinxs and others. Or, alternatively, Black Latinxs will have to flee the Latinx category and just choose Black/African-American. Neither option accounts for the full experience of Afro-Latinidad. Either way, Blackness and Latinidad will be made mutually exclusive. Counting race and ethnicity separately benefits all Latinxs—white, Mestizo, Indigenous, Asian. Counting race and ethnicity separately allows for the sum of all Latines’ experience to be captured fully. All Latinxs have a racial status, just as they have an income, a labor status, a gender identity and expression, a household size, and an ethnicity. If there is no scenario where the Census would stop taking data on gender, labor status, income, and race for any other group, why would they do so for Latinos?

Between 2016 and 2019, as part of the Afro Latin@ Forum, I led a a team of six Afro-Latina scholars and one mestiza Latina in developing a survey that sought to understand the experience of Latinxs with respects to their racial identification. All team members are social scientist Ph.D’s with an expertise on racial and ethnic identity among Latinxs. The advantage of having an expert team with this background is that we are all fully versed in the intricacies of the racial experience, history, and socioeconomic and political reality among the Latinx population. The survey was piloted to a small sample in Latino communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx in New York City. We are embarking on deploying the survey more broadly. The survey is important in helping us understand how to ask Latinxs about race, and how Latinxs react to different types of race identification questions depending on how the question is asked, who asks the question, and where the question is asked.

Results of our pilot survey show that the best way to account for Black Latinx population is to make sure that they find a place to check themselves. Afro-Latinxs, already faced with rejection, questioning, and doubts about their racial experiences, should not be forced to go through extra steps to find themselves and write themselves in a Census. This would only be accentuating the violence of invisibility already bestowed on our lives. We have to make it clear and easy for us to express our racial realities. If the Census is serious about Black Latinos, make sure we can find ourselves swiftly and clearly in the Census. Give Black/Afro-Latinxs a box to check.

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