June 04, 2012

Hispanic is Not a Race

clip_image001By Janis Prince Inniss

Although race in the U.S. Census is based on self-identification, Hispanic is not among the official racial categories. Therefore, no matter how many people refer to the shooting of Trayvon Martin as one of an African American teenager by White or Hispanic George Zimmerman, they are still mixing-up apples and oranges. No matter how much speculation there is regarding Zimmerman’s race, one thing is sure: His race is not Hispanic.

clip_image002Do you know what the official racial categories are? As of the 2010 U.S. Census they were:

  • White
  • Black, African American, or Negro
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian Indian
  • Chinese
  • Filipino
  • Other Asian
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Vietnamese
  • Native Hawaiian
  • Guamanian or Chamorro
  • Samoan
  • Other Pacific Islander
  • Some other race

Where did the Census Bureau come up with this listing? Turns out that the Census Bureau uses guidelines from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) 1997 Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity.

According to the OMB, Hispanic refers to ethnicity and “federal standards mandate that race and Hispanic origin (ethnicity) are separate and distinct concepts and … when collecting these data via self-identification, two different ques­tions must be used (emphasis added).” The 1997 OMB guidelines mandated that minimally federal agencies use at least the following five race categories:

  • White
  • Black or African American
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

A sixth race—Some Other Race—is to be used if people did not identify themselves as one of those five listed above. These are the guidelines used in the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

Given the OMB notation about race and ethnicity, let’s examine those concepts again. As discussed in this post, we use markers such as skin color, eye color and shape, hair texture—that is, some physical characteristics—to categorize people by race. (Note that we don’t use all physical characteristics to carve ourselves into various races: foot length/shoe size, for example is not one we use.)

Unlike race, ethnicity is not something we can easily pretend is biological; ethnicity refers to the cultural traits shared by a group of people. These shared and learned traits include customs, language, and ancestry. Again, Hispanic refers to ethnicity, not to race.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

Hispanic origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States. People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.

Further, the Census Bureau indicates that the term Hispanic or Latino “refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race (emphasis added).” Perhaps some examples would be helpful to clarify all of this.

clip_image004Consider the actor Laz Alonso who you may know from the films Avatar and Jumping the Broom and other film or TV roles. What race is he? And what ethnicity is he?

Based on how we define race in the U.S., looking at his skin color, Alonso is black. In order to make some determination about his ethnicity, however, we need information about his background. Apparently, Alonso’s parents are Cuban; since Cuba is one of the countries listed among those for whom the term Hispanic or Latino refers, Alonso’s ethnicity is Hispanic. Alonso might be considered Afro-Latino or Afro-Hispanic then—terms that describe both his race and ethnicity. Former baseball player, Sammy Sosa is another example of someone who is Afro-Hispanic. Based on physical appearance we would consider Sosa’s race black (I’m ignoring pictures and stories of his skin whitening for simplicity). Sosa was born in the Dominican Republic—so his ethnicity is Hispanic/Latino.

Let’s return to George Zimmerman as we think about race and ethnicity. People viewing his pictures and videos have said he looks white or Hispanic. Now we know that Hispanic—although often associated with appearance—according to the U.S. Census Bureau categorization, is more complex to determine. From media accounts, we have learned that Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Peruvian. In fact, in a letter to the Orlando Sentinel, Zimmerman's father noted that his son is Hispanic. This information speaks to Zimmerman’s ethnicity and not his race; he could be white and Hispanic (consider questions 5 and 6 on the clip_image006Census form), just as Sosa and Alonso are black and Hispanic.

What race are you? And what ethnicity are you? Given how much confusion there seems to be with Hispanic in terms of whether it refers to race or ethnicity, do you think the official definition should be changed to match how most people seem to think of it? Or do you see merit in the official definitions and distinctions?

As you consider that question, reflect on the OMB caveat that: “(t)he racial and ethnic categories set forth in the standards should not be interpreted as being primarily biological or genetic in reference. Race and ethnicity may be thought of in terms of social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry.”


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Your post was very enlightening. I never realized that Hispanic wasn't a race. It's wierd to me that most races are based on the color of your skin or your physical features, but even though it is pretty obvious by looking at someone if they are Hispanic, it isn't considered a race.

It was very interesting to learn that hispanic is not a race. Also learning about the actual "races" in the U.S.

I was under the impression Hispanic was related in part to people who speak Spanish or a language of Latin origin.If so is not Italian closest to Latin.
Please elaborate on this.

I am from Spain and I think that once a person loses the Spanish language he/she cannot be considered "Hispanic" anymore. If the grand children of Latino immigrants are English speaking they are NOT Hispanic, obviously. Calling them "Hispanic" if they have become Anglo by culture (like U.S. Blacks who could be called Black Anglo Saxon Protestant or BASP) doesn´t make sense. Only those who keep the Spanish culture can be called "Hispanic" or "Latino".

But in the U.S. I think the term "Hispanic" is becoming a race similar to the South African "Coloured". "Coloureds" are mixed Afro-Europeans (with some Asian combination) something similar to most "Hispanics" in the U.S. who are mixed Native-Afro-European (with some Asian combination) "Coloureds" are mostly Afrikaans speakers and Christian. They are broadly European by culture like the U.S. blacks and like Hispanics. In fact, also it is true that part of the Afro-American population is really Euro-Afro-American because oftenly 25% or more of their gens are European, and they speak English and are Christian. So, not much different from most "Hispanics" even if among these the European (White) component of the mix is much larger, over 50%....


Hispanic can´t be an ethnicity. I don´t see people saying that Anglophone is an ethnicity.

Why are French Americans, German Americans, and many others not identified by ethnicity?

I'm glad you have your priorities in order.

So what are you if you're Mexican and you have tan skin and brown eyes and are pure Mexican, a United States immigrant? THAT is race I think, is it not? I don't think Native American is very accurate for that. Answers anyone??

Hispanics are being singled out in the Census. Other races are asked to break down their heritage. What about mixed races? What about all the different designations for Asians? This is simply a way for Hispanics to be singled out.

Why oh why do the terms Lation or hispanic get used, you would not group muslims, catholics and anglicans under the term religiou seems the same broad brush classiifcation to me of a group of unrelated people.


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