Erika Prosper, who is Mexican American, recalls not being sure how to fill out census forms for her family.
“I had never felt like I belonged to what was assumed to be the white population,” said Prosper, 48. “As a young man, I had the responsibility of filling out paperwork for my family. I remember consciously putting ‘other’ because we were treated like another.”
When the latest census survey came in 2020, she checked for multiracial to reflect a mix of what she said was her Latino (a word some Latinos use to be inclusive) and indigenous roots. “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.
Both may have many more specific options to select before the next census survey is launched in 2030.
The Biden administration is working to update how it identifies American race and ethnicity for official use. It’s gathering public feedback on its Jan. 27 proposal to change choice for people who identify as Hispanic or Latino, or some version of those. Comments can be submitted through the federal website through April 12.
The federal government has struggled for decades about how to capture the complexity of the ever-growing population of people with Latino or Hispanic roots. The ramifications of the proposed changes are extensive, from how people are asked about their identities in the census to how a local police officer would identify a person cited for a traffic violation.
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color and the lack of data from some states and localities to show their rates of illness, hospitalizations, vaccinations and deaths have demonstrated the need for precision in gathering this information.
“States adopt what the federal is doing. Your schools, your law enforcement agencies, all of this… are taking a cue from what the government is doing,” said Julie Dowling, author of “Mexican Americans and the Question of Race.”
The Biden administration’s Office of Management and Budget proposes asking people, “What is your race or ethnicity?” and follow it up with “Select all that apply”.
In an abbreviated question, there would be boxes to tick next to choices of “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.”
An alternative proposal is a longer question that provides details under each choice. For example, after Hispanic or Latino, a respondent might check one box for Mexican or Mexican American, one box for Puerto Rican, and so on. A writing box is also provided.
Based on current government standards, people were asked in the 2020 census to first select whether they are Hispanic or non-Hispanic, and for “yes” answers, which origin: Mexican, Puerto Rican, etc. Then they were asked to choose their race, but Hispanic or Latino is not among those choices. About 26 million Hispanics, 42%, marked “some other race” in the census.
“The problem we have now is people get confused and end up not even completing the race question. People think, I’ve already indicated I’m Mexican, so why do I have to check another or another race?” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO.
“People also get confused because they consider their Latino identity to be their identity,” Vargas said.
That uproar over identifiers is reflected in the evolution of census forms, which didn’t have a Hispanic identity question on the short form until 1980. “Mexico” was entered into the census in 1930, but then removed before the next census among the protests by Mexican Americans and Mexico activists, said Julie Dowling, author of “Mexican Americans and the Question of Race.”
In recent years, “people have seen data as a source of power. Having data was a way to argue and advocate for your community,” Dowling said.
Jathan Melendez, 24, is a lead youth organizer at Community Coalition, a group in South Los Angeles that works against systemic racism and to improve Black-Latino relations. Raised as a biracial black man with a family heritage from Honduras, Guatemala and Belize, Melendez said he feels “put in a box” with current racial options limited.
“It was always hard to choose. There were times where I identified as Black and there were also times where I identified as Central American,” she said. “I had to put ‘other’ and specify that I was Central American just to feel comfortable at the time.”
When asked how he would respond with the proposed options, Melendez said he “would still choose black because I fear my identity as a Central American on paper will limit the opportunities or resources or voice of the black community because I have chosen not to identify as black.” .”
Identifiers are critical to enforcing civil rights, Vargas said, noting that the first use of the new census data is for redistricting. “We need to know where Latinos live, where African Americans live, essentially so we can design districts that are compliant with the Voting Rights Act.”
“If we have 40 percent of Latinos saying they are of another race, that doesn’t help you … understand racially what these Latinos are, since they identify in a non-existent category,” he said.
Mark Hugo Lopez, director of research on race and ethnicity at the Pew Research Center, explained that for some Hispanics or Latinos it is a race, for others it is a distinct identity, derived from the countries they come from, their ethnicity and their families of origin and not related to race.
“Race and ethnicity are viewed differently and viewed differently than they are here in the United States,” Lopez said. “One of the concerns with this particular change — is not just identifying the racial and ethnic distribution among Latinos, but also whether or not we might miss anything in the Hispanic counts.”
There was disagreement among Latinos as to whether the format of a question was the best way to go. Vargas said NALEO needed to be persuaded, and according to research showing the combined application yielded more comprehensive data on Latinos.
But Nancy Lopez, a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico, says the proposal is problematic. You suggest a box for the “Brown” category.
“If we collect Hispanic data just like we do racial data, we erase Latino blacks because what we’re saying is, well, there’s a Latino race, and you guys are mixed race or something. It’s ridiculous,” Lopez said. , daughter of a Dominican immigrant.
The proposed single question will prohibit seeing different levels of segregation among Latinos and dilute data on Latino diversity, he said. Lopez pointed to the example of actress Anna Taylor-Joy, who is Argentine-Scottish, correcting an article’s reference to her as a black woman, when she identifies as a white Latina.
“When you’ve checked five boxes, who knows what they’ll do?” Lopez asked.
Benjamin Casar, 30, grew up in Houston and speaks Spanish. His family immigrated from Mexico in the mid to late 1980s and has heritage from parts of North Africa, Spain and Hawaii.
Like Melendez, Casar struggled with choosing which race to select in the paperwork. He recalled asking his mother “What are we?” and “Which one do I choose?” when he was younger.
If a proposal to include Hispanics or Latinos in the choice of race and ethnicity pans out, she said she would try to represent all of her family’s cultures and check all that apply.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com