When Alexa Aviles received her census form in 2010, she was frustrated by the choices. Like all Hispanics, Ms. Aviles, a Puerto Rican who lives in Brooklyn, was first asked to identify her ethnicity and then to answer a question about her race. Ms. Aviles, 41, who works for a nonprofit, thought, “I’m all of these!” In annoyance, she checked Hispanic, and then identified herself as white, black and “some other race.”
Mustafa Asmar, a Palestinian-American waiter in Paterson, N.J., does not like his options either. Arab-Americans are broadly classified as white in the census. “When you fill out white or other, it doesn’t really represent the Middle Eastern population,” said Mr. Asmar, 25. “I don’t feel like I’m white. I don’t know what else to put.”
As the United States becomes more diverse, the Census Bureau is grappling with how to accurately classify race and ethnicity in its next decennial count in 2020. It is an issue that plays out in divergent ways for different groups. Many Hispanics, like Ms. Aviles, are frustrated that they are prompted to select from racial categories that they believe do not represent their identity.
Many Arabs have the opposite concern: They are not asked a separate ethnicity question and are typically categorized as white, a label that many feel does not apply.
Of the 47.6 million people who classified themselves as being of Hispanic or Latino origin on the 2010 census, 30.5 percent also considered themselves “some other race.” Many emphasized their Hispanic heritage by writing in “Mexican,” “Hispanic,” “Latin American” or “Puerto Rican” to specify what they meant. An additional 13 percent declined to provide a race at all.
As a result, the bureau is considering modifying the Hispanic question for the 2020 census. Respondents could continue to select as many race categories as they wanted, but Hispanics would no longer be prompted to check a racial category. That pleases many Hispanics, but, in a sign of how complicated the issue is, it has raised concerns among some black Latinos who say that not prompting a response on race “helps enforce the myth of a monolithic Latinidad,” said Guesnerth Perea, the communications coordinator of the Afro Latino Forum, a nonprofit cultural group. “The concern is about erasure. Who gets recognized and who doesn’t get recognized.” Of the Hispanics who did name a race in 2010, 47.4 percent reported “white” while 2.1 reported percent “black.”
A Hispanic origin question has been part of the census since 1970, and the question has evolved each decade in an attempt to more accurately reflect the growing Hispanics demographic, census officials said. Answers to those questions have also shifted.
A recent New York Times article on preliminary research from the 2000 and 2010 census, which showed some Hispanics switched the answer to the race question from “some other race” to “white” and some switched from “white” to “some other race,” was criticized by some Hispanics for not understanding of the fluidity of Hispanic identity. The critiques set off flurry of opinion articlesacross the country about Hispanic identity as well as a Twitter campaign called #WhatLatinosLookLike, in which Hispanics posted photos of themselves to show their diversity of skin color, hair texture, racial and economic backgrounds.
“Its not that the people are confused; it’s that the question is inexact,” said Hector R. Cordero-Guzman, a professor at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, of the decision by many Latinos to choose “some other race” or no race at all. “If you are asking somebody simply what their skin color is — that’s how some people understand the question. Some people say they are asking me about my ancestry. Others think they are asking me about how I’m treated when I go outside.”
Julie A. Dowling, an associate professor of Latino/Latina studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said some Hispanics selected white as a race as “a defensive response to racism.”
“They don’t want to be white, European or assimilated,” Ms. Dowling said. “They want acceptance as an American.”