What Race Are Hispanics?

Dec 15, 2004

By David Morse

Writer Richard Rodriguez calls Richard M. Nixon the inventor of Hispanics.

His logic? In 1972, Nixon signed a federal mandate called Statistical Directive 15, establishing the current system of classifying Americans into five racial or ethnic groups: White, African American, American Indian / Alaska Native, Asian / Pacific Islander, and Hispanic.

In Rodriguez’s words: “I have traveled throughout Latin America and I have looked for Hispanics. Everyone tells you there are no Hispanics there. Essentially, the whole category of the Hispanic is in fact an American fabrication.”

Fabrication or not, Hispanics clearly do not represent a race. Rather, the category represents people of multiple racial backgrounds: Indigenous, African, European and Asian.

The Census asks the question of Hispanic origin separately from that of race, putting Hispanics into a unique category.

In 2000, 48% of those who identified themselves as Hispanic counted themselves as white. Blacks made up 2% and the American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander categories made up only a fraction. Only 6% described themselves as being of two or more races, an interesting fact given that so many Latin Americans represent a mix of races. The remaining 42% of Hispanics, a total of 15 million people, chose the Census category “some other race” (SOR).

The Pew Hispanic Center has just released a study that examines the relationship between Hispanics and race. Its findings suggest that Hispanics view race in terms that go well beyond simple genetics, and that the race they choose to identify with is more related to mindset and socioeconomics rather than physical appearance.

For example, U.S. born Hispanics were more likely to consider themselves white than foreign born Hispanics, with the exception of Cubans. More third generation Hispanics consider themselves white than those of the second generation. U.S. citizens are more likely to call themselves white than non-U.S. citizens from the same country of origin. In fact, “white” Hispanics are more likely to be better educated, make more money, speak more English and experience less discrimination.

Says the Pew Center’s director, Roberto Suro, “There is a consistent pattern that those who identify themselves as white are better off and more incorporated into society. Part of this may be the fact that those whose skin color is darker have a different experience.”

Moderator’s Comment: Have the ethnic/racial classifications of 1972’s Statistical Directive 15 lost relevance on the eve of 2005? Are there better ways
to think about the multicultural America of the new millennium?

To quote the Pew Center’s executive summary, “In the commonplace view, Latinos are an additional ‘group’ that has been added to the American mix of white,
black, Asian, etc. The temptation is to racialize this population, to make it fit in the traditional American social paradigm, which assigns people to race or race-like categories.
But the growing Hispanic population may compel a reassessment of the common view of a race or ethnic group.”

Clearly the category of Hispanic as a racial categorization makes little sense. A moment ago, I did my own market research experiment with a sample of one,
and showed a facsimile of a 2000 census form to our Chief Operating Officer, Julio Arreaga. I asked Julio, an Ecuadorian who immigrated to the United States at the age of eight,
to tell me his race. “I’m moreno,” he said, using the Spanish word for dark brown to describe himself. “I’m none of these races. They make no sense for someone like me.”

David Morse – Moderator

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