Hispanics may become a race of their own in the U.S. Census - a major change that some Latino advocacy groups are opposing.
Currently, the Census considers Hispanic not a race but an ethnic background. Hispanics can be of any race, and Hispanic origin is asked on Census forms in a question separate from the one about race.
Now, the Census is considering eliminating the Hispanic origin question and combining it with the race question in a "race or origin" category.
The change would be the biggest adjustment to Census questions about race since the 2000 Census, when people for the first time were allowed to check more than one race - a nod to the nation's growing multiracial population.
The federal government periodically alters race and ethnicity questions to keep up with shifts in the social fabric of the nation. For example, "mulatto" was a Census category in 1920. "Negro" may finally be dropped in 2020.
Immigration in the past 30 years has fueled an explosion in the Hispanic population. Now at 52 million, or 16.7% of the total population, Latinos surpass blacks as the largest minority group in the USA.
The potential Census changes don't please some Hispanics even though many feel boxed in by the current race categories: white, black, Asian, American Indian. When the Census added a fifth in 1980 - "some other race" - so many Hispanics chose it that it is now the third-largest race group behind white and black; 95% of those who selected "some other race" are Hispanic.
Hispanics historically have had difficulty identifying with existing race categories.
"I do see the difficulty with the government classifying Latinos in one category or in many categories," says Elizabeth Zamora, 23, a Dallas native and daughter of Mexican immigrants. "We're not just white or black or Asian. Our parents may be coming from Jamaica, Mexico, Argentina, Europe. ... You can't put us in one category."
Zamora, a recent communications and Spanish graduate of Southern Methodist University who works for a public relations firm, filled out her first Census questionnaire in 2010. She checked Hispanic, Mexican-American and white.
The current form "really does separate Latinos from the rest of the population in a way," she says. "It does make me feel excluded to a certain extent."
Latino civil rights groups don't embrace the change because they like the separate ethnicity question, which offers check-off boxes for national origins such as Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican.
"There is no unanimity on what any of this stuff means," says Angelo Falcon, director of the National Institute for Latino Policy and co-chair of a coalition of Latino advocacy groups that recently met with Census officials. "Right now, we're very comfortable with having the Hispanic (origin) question. ... Hispanic as a race category? I don't think there's any consensus on that."
The Census is a high-stakes numbers game that helps cement the political and financial clout of various interest groups.
Legislative district lines, representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and federal funding are all based on Census counts. When people don't select a race, the Census Bureau has to extrapolate it from the racial profile of the neighborhood they live in and other factors - a scientific guessing game.
"People are asking for ways to express their identities," says Nicholas Jones, chief of the Census racial statistics branch, who says that some respondents view their Hispanic origin as their race rather than an ethnic group. "A combined question (race and origin) approach is more in line with how Hispanics identify and view themselves."
Tests show that folding the Hispanic question into the race question does not reduce the number of Hispanics, Jones says. The revised questionnaire was sent to about a half-million households during the 2010 Census and more tests are in the works. Any change will have to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget and by Congress.
The format under consideration allows everyone to list a national origin under the race selected, whether it's Irish, Guatemalan, Somalian or Jamaican - something not currently available to blacks and whites who are not Hispanic.
The change could satisfy demands for more recognition from other groups such as Middle Easterners and North Africans who don't feel they fit neatly in current race boxes.
Combining the Hispanic question with race "conforms much better to the way people see themselves," says Roderick Harrison, a demographer at Howard University and former head of the Census racial statistics branch.
Former Census director Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University professor, argues that the Census Bureau should just stop asking about race. That would not affect the enforcement of voting rights and other civil rights, he says.
"We ought to get rid of the race question and go to national origin," he says - an argument he makes in his upcoming book, What Is Your Race?The Flawed Effort of the Census to Classify Americans.
"That's what the country needs - not these 18th-century-old race groups," Prewitt says.
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