How Latinos Are Redefining America

A correction I find myself making often, especially to those who don’t agree with my particular point of view, is that the term Latino does not refer to a race. Some people like to say that Latino is an ethnicity, but I’ve settled on calling it a culture – it just makes more sense to me that way.

Most Latinos understand the vagueness of it all. We’re brown, black, native, white, Asian, as well as wonderful mixtures of everything in between. We know that what binds us is culture with many varying traditions. It’s really not a problem for us. Researchers, though, are having fits at putting us in their empirical boxes. They need to define us before they can track us and project us into the future. Good luck to them.

Some politicians are thinking that the best way to define Latinos is to lump them into the white category. The US Census lets people check off multiple boxes. But those ideas are only confusing the matter more. Especially when you consider that Latinos are intermarrying more than any other group (See what I did there? I completely side-stepped the race-ethnicity thing by calling it a group.). We’re a racially mixed bunch of people, and we’re mixing it up even more.

The US Department of Education is trying to figure this out as well. You’d think that because it’s a federal government entity it would take its cues from other federal entities that have experience navigating the bogs of racial identity. The Office of Management and Budget published race identity guidelines in 1997. But no. The Education Department figured it would make up its own rules to suit its own purposes. A recent New York Times Article explained it this way:

Under Department of Education requirements that take effect this year  partial Hispanic ethnicity will, regardless of race, be reported to federal officials only as Hispanic. And students of non-Hispanic mixed parentage who choose more than one race will be placed in a “two or more races” category, a catchall that detractors describe as inadequately detailed. A child of black and American Indian parents, for example, would be in the same category as, say, a child of white and Asian parents.

You can imagine that this has folks of other-than-Latino races up in arms. If you’re a multi-ethnic/racial person with Latino in the mix, you get classified as Latino. If you’re not, in part, something that can be defined as Latino you get tossed in the multi-ethnic bin. I think the folks at the Ed Department are over-compensating their curve ball.

This is great fodder for the folks who stomp their foot and angrily want everyone to classify themselves as American. I think this a good problem to have.  There is a difference between calling yourself American, and being classified in a specific group of Americans. We do the latter to organize ourselves in order to form a more perfect union, and all that.

An obvious example: Latinos have a disproportionate and alarming rate of drop-outs. We know because we count them. Armed with that knowledge we can focus our work on fixing that problem, especially since we know that Latinos are also the youngest and fastest growing group(!) in the country. It has immediate implications as well as ten or fifteen years down the road and beyond, affecting the economy and social security (and we know this because we’ve counted the baby-boomers and know they’ll be expecting their social Security checks in growing numbers).

The problem is that the Education Department scheme over counts on one end and under counts on the other – population is a zero-sum thing in that sense. If you add to one bin, you take away form another. Unless, as the US Census let’s us do, you can check off multiple boxes – after that its the head counter’s problem.

Here’s what’s important about all this. America is at a pivotal and defining moment in its history – it’s that serious. The questions regarding immigration and population that anger us into a fit are defining our society and our country (remember, our nation’s fathers designed a system that provided for an organic evolution, striving for perfection). The definitions of who we are frame that discussion.  We need to get it right.

[Photo by heathbrandon]

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