Joe Biden
The Biden administration is working to update how it identifies Americans' race and ethnicity for official use. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Two groups within the U.S. population have made progress toward more accurate self-identification.

For decades, the federal government has struggled to understand the complexity of the steadily growing number of persons with Latino or Hispanic heritage. The proposed changes have a wide range of effects, affecting anything from how people are questioned about their identities on census forms to how a local police officer might identify someone who has been ticketed for a traffic infraction.

However, modifications suggested by the country's top statistician to how government institutions gather such information would include a Middle Eastern and North African group. It would also eliminate the requirement for Latinos or anybody else to select a specific category under which they fall by combining race and ethnicity into a single question for everyone.

The Biden administration is collecting feedback on its Jan. 27 proposal to change the choice for people who identify as Hispanic or Latino or a version of those. Through the government website, comments may be submitted until Apr. 12.

Mexican American Erika Prosper recalls feeling confused about how to complete the census paperwork for her family.

"I had never felt like I belonged to what was assumed to be the white population," said Prosper, 48. "I had the responsibility of filling out the paperwork for my family as a young person. I remember consciously putting 'other' because we had been treated like an other."

She selected multiracial on the 2020 census form to indicate a combination of what she claimed to be her Latine (a word some Latinos use to be inclusive) and Indigenous roots. She said, "I don't think I'm alone," she said. Prosper's husband, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent from Eastern Europe and has Filipino, Malay, Indian, and British roots.

By the time the 2030 census survey is released, both may have access to a wide range of possibilities.

For many Latinos, having to identify as anything else has been confusing. Arturo Aldama, ethnic studies department chair at the University of Colorado Boulder, said his Latino students report being stymied by such questions since they identify as neither Black nor white but as Chicano, mestizo or indigenous, reports USA Today.

Some claim to mark themselves as "American Indian" even though they are aware it is inaccurate.

According to Aldama, "Over half have said, 'Those questions make no sense to me.'" He anticipates a sharp decline in the proportion of non-Hispanic whites if the change is accepted. "The amount of people who identify as white will be much less," he said.

The pandemic's disproportionate effects on communities of color and the lack of statistics from various states and regions about their rates of sickness, hospitalizations, vaccines, and fatalities showed the need for precision in gathering such information.

Julie Dowling, author of 'Mexican Americans and the Question of Race' said,
"States adopt what the federal is doing. Your schools, your law enforcement, all of these ... are taking their cues from what the government is doing."

The Biden administration's Office of Management and Budget is recommending that people be asked, "What is your race or ethnicity?" and follow that with "Select all that apply."

In a simplified question, the options "White," "Hispanic or Latino," "Black or African American," "Asian," "American Indian or Alaska Native," "Middle Eastern or North African," and "Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander" would all have boxes next to them that you could click.

An alternate suggestion is a lengthier question with more information beneath each option. A respondent might, for instance, tick the boxes next to Hispanic or Latino following Mexican or Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and so forth. There is also a space for writing.

By the government's present policies, respondents to the 2020 Census were first asked to indicate whether they are Hispanic or non-Hispanic. If they chose "yes," they were then asked what origin, such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, etc. Then, when asked to select their race, Hispanic or Latino was not an option. About 26 million Hispanics, 42%, marked "some other race" on the census.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials or NALEO said, "The problem we have now is people get confused and they end up not even completing the race question. People think, I already indicated I'm Mexican, so why do I have to check another or some other race?"

"People also get confused because they consider their Latino-ness to be their identity," Vargas added.

"It was always hard to choose — there were times where I would identify as Black and there were also times where I would identify as Central American," he said. "I had to put 'other' and just specify that I was Central American just so that I feel comfortable in that moment," said Jathan Melendez, 24. He is a lead youth organizer at Community Coalition, a south Los Angeles group working against systematic racism and for improved Black-Latino relationships.

Melendez responded when asked how he would react given the available choices, "still choose Black because I would fear that my identity as a Central American on paper will limit the opportunities or resources or the voice of the Black community because I chose not to identify as Black."

Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center said, "Race and ethnicity are seen differently and viewed differently than it is here in the United States."
"One of the concerns with this particular change — is not only the identification of the racial and ethnic distribution among Latinos, but also whether or not we might lose something in the counts of Hispanics."

According to Lopez, while being Hispanic or Latino is a race for certain people, it is an identity that is unique, drawn from the nations from which they come originally, their ethnicity, and their ancestry, and is unrelated to race.

The concept is problematic, according to Nancy Lopez, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. She recommends adding a box for the 'Brown' category.

"If we collect Hispanic data just as race data then we erase Black Latinos because what we're saying is, well, there's a Latino race, and you guys are mixed race or something. It's ridiculous," said Lopez, a daughter of Dominican immigrants, reports NBC News.

Spanish-speaking Benjamin Casar, 30, was born and raised in Houston. His family, which includes ancestry from regions of northern Africa, Spain, and Hawaii, immigrated from Mexico in the middle to late 1980s.

He said that if the idea to add Hispanic or Latino to the race and ethnicity selection were to pass, he would make an effort to represent all of the cultures in his family and check all that apply.

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