September 3, 2012 | The Patriot-News | Original Article

Census proposal to allow Latino identification hailed

Count Maria Montero among the legions of Americans who pause when filling out the racial category of the U.S. Census.

Montero is American born. Her father is from Peru; her mother is of Irish-Italian descent.

The five racial options provided by the decennial survey — white, black or Asian among them — fail to capture her identity, she said.

“I’m American, but I identify culturally as a Latina. But if someone put me to the grill and asked what’s your race, I don’t know. It’s ambiguous,” Montero said.

The census is about to get more to the point.

Beginning with the next U.S. Census in 2020, Hispanics across the country might be able to identify themselves under one category — Hispanic — regardless of race.

Hispanics — people who trace their origins to countries once colonized by Spain — can be of any race and ethnicity. Current census classification treats race and Hispanic origin as two separate and distinct concepts.

Under the proposed changes, census respondents would be able to indicate their identity by answering one question, which would give the option of ticking off a race or Hispanic origin.

Montero said the proposed change will allow Latinos to identify themselves more authentically.

“It’s not anthropologically based. It’s a socio-political presentation of who you are,” said Montero, executive director of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs. “Genetically, when you look at Latinos, it’s an intermingling of so many races and cultures. That’s what’s interesting about Latinos. We’re such an eclectic people.”

A need for change

The government agency set off to find ways for Hispanics to better identify themselves after the 2010 count showed that the “Some Other Race” category, intended as a residual category, accounted for the third-largest race group, after white alone and black alone. Hispanics comprised the majority of people who checked that category.

The goal of the proposed change is to improve the accuracy and reliability of the population tally and decrease nonresponses.

The latest research shows that a higher number of individuals were more likely to respond to a single question — one combining race and Hispanic origin — than to separate questions, as is currently the case.

In Pennsylvania, the proposed change stands to yield a markedly different tally from an already dramatic demographic shift.

Pennsylvania’s Hispanic population has increased exponentially over the past decade. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population grew by 82 percent — from 394,088 to 719,660.

“From what I read, the Census Bureau is really reaching out to find the best way to ask these questions and get the best response,” said Jennifer Shultz, a data services manager for the Pennsylvania State Data Center. “That’s the point. To test these questions and format and see what the response rates are.”

The federal population count’s quandary played out in Pennsylvania as well. In 2010, of Pennsylvania’s 12.7 million residents, 2 percent identified themselves under the some other race category. That category grew by 60 percent between 2000 and 2010.

“That category becomes large, but it’s not descriptive,” Shultz said. “It makes it difficult to see how diverse the population is in reality. We see that in many states.”

Indeed, the stakes are high.

Census data play a major role in a slew of decisions — political and programmatic — across the country. From public policy matters to voter representation, demographic shifts are certain to have a profound impact on the political landscape of the state and the country.

“It’s a zero-sum exercise,” said Chris Borick, Muhlenberg College political science professor and analyst. “If you create a new category, it will have a de facto percentage change for any other category — most certainly white and black.”

The impact will be felt not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country. Hispanic-Americans are the fastest-growing racial demographic in this country.

“It will have lots of implications come the next redistricting,” Borick said. “We will have to account for that just like we have to account for African-American representation. It will change that dynamic.”

The changes, said Bev Cigler, professor of public policy and administration at Penn State Harrisburg, are long overdue.

“We need consistency throughout the government on how we define things,” she said. “We divvy out $400 billion a year in financial aid — state, local and individuals — so it’s good to have some classification system, especially for the Hispanic population. And obviously not just for financial aid but for the redistricting of congressional districts. This is important to know.”

Population changes also guide public policies that deal with racial disparities in health, education, labor and civil rights.

“It makes sense with the Hispanic population being as large as it is today to sort out race and ethnicities and deal with Hispanics from a race perspective, not just ethnicity,” Cigler said.

In the last census, one in six Americans — 50 million individuals — identified themselves as Latino. And although some national Latino advocacy groups have expressed concern that the changes might hurt the Latino count, Cigler suspects the changes will enhance the count.

“I think there will be less Hispanics checking ‘white’ and more just going specifically with Hispanic as a race,” she said. “It will actually help the count from a Hispanic perspective.”

Other revisions sought

In addition to changes to the Latino category, the Census Bureau indicated it will explore ways for individuals of Middle Eastern descent to identify themselves.

The agency also proposed an end to the use of the term “Negro,” which many black groups find offensive.

Stan Lawson, president of the Greater Harrisburg NAACP, said he didn’t object to the word one way or the other.

“I’m president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We don’t use the word ‘colored’ anymore,” he said. “I don’t understand why the U.S. Census Bureau would worry at all. We are all Americans.”

Still, Lawson said he welcomes the change.

“It needed to be changed,” he said. “For young folks it made a big difference. I think it’s a good thing. Young folks identify as ‘I’m black or Afro-American.’ It’s self-identity rather than somebody naming them: ‘Oh you are Negro or you’re colored.’ There’s more pride.”

Cigler said the bureau has throughout the decades edited the terms it has used in its surveys. For example, it long ago phased out use of the term mulatto.

Montero said the changes reflect changes in national sentiments.

“It’s more customer-service based. It’s not what the government wants but how we as citizens look at ourselves,” she said.