Hispanic is Not a Race

By Janis Prince Inniss

from Everyday Sociology

Although race in the U.S. Census is based on self-identification, Hispanic is notamong 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 culturaltraits 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 andJumping 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 Sosais 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 SentinelZimmerman’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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