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#5 How accurately does the census count Hispanics/Latinos?

In my previous newsletter, I provided a brief history and definitions of the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino/Latinx," emphasizing a few points:

  • Neither term accurately represents the heterogeneity of this population or reflects individual identities.

  • Few Hispanics use the controversial terms Hispanic or Latino, or have a preference for one vs the other, according to recent surveys.

  • Those who show a preference, tend to choose “Hispanic,” a term introduced in the 1970s by an advisory committee trying to identify the best way to describe this population to quantify its needs.

  • The terminology is useful mainly because data from the census is used to determine the distribution of public funds for programs including those involving education and health care.

This raises the question: "If most Hispanics agree that these words fail to identify our population and rarely use them; does the census count Hispanics accurately?"

The short answer to that question is no.

Here is my next 5-minute read to learn 5 reasons why.

1.    The definitions of race and ethnicity are confusing

In the census questionnaire, it is ethnicity that determines whether a person is Hispanic or not. The census examines race and ethnicity with two questions:

1. “Is the person of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”

This question has five response options: one for non-Hispanic respondents, and four for Hispanic respondents: 1) "Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano," 2) "Puerto Rican," 3) "Cuban," 4) "Another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin."

Respondents have a space where they can write a specific Hispanic origin group e.g. Ecuadorian.

2. “What is this person’s race?”

Hispanics can report any race; since 2010, all respondents may report more than one race. 1) White, 2) Black or African American, 3) Asian, 4) American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Other Pacific Islander, or 5) Some Other Race (SOR).

“Racially speaking, the United States is zero percent Hispanic. This is confusing—especially for America’s nearly 58 million Hispanics. —Alex Wagner, The Americans our government won't count

A confused person trying to fill a census form

If you're not already confused, or wondering how helpful these data are, allow me to share that my response to the question on ethnicity would be "another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" and my response to the race question would be "some other race."

What would someone trying to understand my demographic for research purposes or to allocate resources to people like me do with such unspecific answers is beyond me! But then again, I'm no demographer so what do I know? I'm sure someone will let me know in an angry comment :).

This leads me to the next problem:

2.    Millions of individuals do not identify with any of the official race categories

A growing number of people in the U.S. (~50 million in the 2020 census) do not identify with any of the official race categories or consider themselves multiracial.

In fact, the second most common racial group after White is “Some Other Race (SOR)” and 93.7% of those who make this choice are Hispanics.

So clearly, I'm not alone! If the census continues to ignore the changing demographics of the U.S. and our increased awareness of the artificial definitions of race and ethnicity in surveys, eventually SOR will be the most common race category!

“Are Latino-Americans White? Black? Other? Illegal aliens from Mars? Or are we the very face of America?” ― Raquel Cepeda, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina 

3. Some Hispanics identify as White

The current two-question (race and ethnicity) format in the census survey likely undercounts the number of Hispanics who identify as White.

I will devote a separate newsletter to this topic, but in essence, it all goes back to the difference between formal definitions of race/ethnicity and identity.

Consider these examples as a preview:

-Children born in the U.S. to a biracial or multiracial/multiethnic couple (e.g. White and Hispanic parents) and who speak English as their native language are more likely to identify themselves as White.

-Similarly, third-generation or higher Hispanic Americans are less likely to identify themselves as Hispanic and may choose "White" as their race in the census.

-In Latin America, race is primarily defined by skin color. Recent immigrants with lighter skin are more likely to identify themselves as White.

“I guess it all depends on whom you ask and when you ask. Race, I've learned, is in the eye of the beholder.” ― Raquel Cepeda, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina

A multiethnic group of young people

4. Collecting information from Spanish-speaking individuals and those living in remote areas is challenging

Language barriers increase the risk of undercounting non-English proficient U.S. residents in the census. Around 75 million in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home, with about 60 million speaking Spanish. This is a major concern.

The Census Bureau attempts to address this with a bilingual form. However, forms are distributed based on yet another census survey the ACS, which uses the same definitions and only surveys a small sample of the population, revealing systematic flaws in the system.

In 2010, less than half of Hispanic people got the bilingual Census form, reducing undercounting but with minimal improvement according to research. In 2020, 9% of U.S. households received bilingual invitations.

Respondents can participate in the census online in 12 languages, but internet access is not universally available and is limited in rural areas. Also, many people are afraid to participate, which takes me to point number five.

5.    Collecting citizenship information (or saying that you intend to) decreases participation

A highly politicized and controversial debate during the previous administration concluded when the Supreme Court ruled against including a question on citizenship in the 2020 Census.

Research from the Urban Institute and the Census Bureau suggested that even though the court ruled against including the citizenship question, public attention to the topic generated enough concern among immigrants to decrease participation in the 2020 census for fear of deportation.

In an environment in which “whiteness” gives people a sense of belonging, to self-identify as Hispanic or Arabic-American is a political act. —Alex Wagner

Key Takeaways:

  1. In the U.S. Census ethnicity determines whether a person is of Hispanic origin. Race information is collected separately, and Hispanics can report any race.

  2. There are five race categories: White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, and Some Other Race (SOR). 93.7% of people selecting SOR are Hispanics.

  3. The Census does not accurately enumerate the Hispanic population due to several issues including the availability of questionnaires in Spanish in all areas where Spanish-speaking individuals live, the difficulties surveying remote locations, and the confusion around definitions of race and ethnicity.

  4. Let me be clear: participation in the census is important. Census data is crucial for allocating public funds to various programs such as education and health care. Nevertheless, the Census Bureau must update the questionnaire to reflect our nation's changing demographics, free from political interference.


A similar version of this text was published in the author's book “Un Doctor Por Favor: Why We Need More Hispanic Physicians And Why You Should Be One of Them.” and excerpted with permission.

This story was also published here:

This story is also available in Spanish.



Very interesting article . It made me realize many key aspects of the census that I hadn't thought about before.

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