Mises Wire

How the Census Bureau Invented “Hispanics”

marco rubio

For anyone who’s been following Major League Baseball in recent years, it’s apparent that the memo has gone out that now is the time to wring one’s hands over a lack of African-American players. Just this month, Hank Aaron lamented that MLB is “a dying sport as far as African-Americans [are concerned.]”

But Aaron’s concern only makes sense if one uses the term “African-American” in the strictest sense possible. That is, to see a significant decline in the number of African-Americans, one must count only native-born Americans of African descent, and not count the sizable number of Major League players of African descent who were born in places like Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Any casual observer watching baseball, upon hearing of an alleged shortage of African Americans, might look at Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Yasiel Puig and wonder why we’re being told there are no black athletes. What most people don’t know is that those three men are often counted in the government paperwork as “Hispanic” or “Latino” rather than “African-American” because they come from Spanish-speaking countries. From the point of view of left-wing racial politics, however, there is no relevant distinction here. People of African descent from places like Cuba and the Dominican Republic are almost all descended from slaves and are members of a poorer socio-economic class in their home countries.

The fact remains that a great many “Latino” baseball players — who now make up nearly 27 percent of all players — are actually black Latinos.

However, because of the arbitrary classification system invented by government census takers, black Latinos are often excluded from being mentioned as African-Americans by the high priests of racial politics in professional sports.

“Hispanics” Did Not Exist Before the 1970s

Now, I don’t exactly spend my days worrying about the parochial and quaint concerns of sports commentators, but this issue helps provide an illustration of the confusion caused by the Census Bureau’s modern invention of the category known as “Latino” or ”Hispanic.” The fact that blond-haired baseball player Enrique Hernandez and Yasiel Puig are both given the same “Latino” designation by government statisticians shows how these categories can be used to manipulate our views of socio-economic classes and supposed racial and ethnic divides.

Prior to the 1970s, the government in the United States engaged in no systematic counting of Hispanics. Except for a one-time inclusion of a “Mexican” race category on the 1930 Census form, there was no special Census category for people with roots in Spanish-speaking countries until 1970. (”Mexican,” by the way, is no more a racial category than is “Canadian” or “Texan.”)

As the Pew Research Center notes, it was only in 1970 that the federal government decided it was necessary to begin keeping track of a “person’s origin” with a list of categories limited to Latin American and Caribbean places including “Puerto Rico,” “Mexico,” and others. Only on the 1980 Census did the term “Hispanic” begin to appear, and only during the 1990s did the now-common formula of indicating both Hispanic origin and race appear. In this latter formula, someone who wishes to be identified as Hispanic, must choose “Hispanic” and then next is prompted to select a race. By 1990, the Census Bureau finally figured out that “Hispanic” is not a racial designation. The 1990 Census was also the first to introduce the term “Latino.”

Prior to 1970, though, “Hispanic” and “Latino” were by no means formal terms on which to base public policy or any sort of serious sociological endeavor. Mexican-Americans, who made up the largest Hispanic group at the time, commonly identified themselves simply as “Caucasian” which was more commonly used than “white” at the time. (Thus, there’s reason to believe that older counts of the “white” population in places like California and New Mexico inflate the number of non-Hispanic whites present.)

For a variety of political reasons — including the potential to expand government largesse — government agencies invented the new category and began to shoehorn a variety of different cultural and national groups into it. If one really wished to learn something about socio-economic realities, it would obviously be absurd to include an ethnic Italian from Buenos Aires and someone from an Indian village in Chiapas into the same group. But that’s what the Census Bureau in its wisdom has decided is the correct way to categorize people. Moreover, in the context of American interest groups, discussing both Cuban-Americans and Mexican-Americans as a single group which must share common interests is beyond useless and misleading.

Indeed, the whole exercise illustrates the very arbitrariness and politically-motivated nature of government attempts to separate, classify, and organize human beings into the state’s pre-conceived notions of group identity.

However, as with all forms of government-imposed statistical endeavors, state-imposed categories of ethnicity have shaped and reinforced our own views of reality.

Prior to the invention of government reporting on economic trends, for example, there was no concept of “the economy” as a thing that could be observed, counted, and — most importantly — manipulated by public policy. Since the 1930s, though, a non-stop barrage of government statistics on “the economy” has shaped and revolutionized our most basic notions of economic growth, employment, and national policy. 

With demographic categorization, the same situation endures. If we can classify people, count them, and put them in special groups, then we can use that data to justify government attempts to manipulate those groups either through special welfare programs or government regulation.

Government Data Shapes Our Views of Ethnic Conflict 

This isn’t a modern invention, of course. State governments in the 19th century commonly sought to create racial categories that would identify the potential slaves within the population, and later, efforts were made to regulate marriages in a way that prohibited interracial marriages. Indeed, the roots of government marriage regulation largely stems from these attempts at racial categorization. 

Furthermore, it’s not a coincidence that a racial category for “Mexican” appeared on the 1930 Census as something of an aberration. The 1920s and 1930s were a high-water period for eugenics in the United States, and there were numerous efforts to classify people along racial lines for the purposes of micromanagement by government agencies.

A look at the administrative history behind these efforts leads one to be struck by the arbitrariness of it all, although as a political tool, these attempts have been quite enduring. As Jamell Bouie notes at Slate:

American racial categories are far from fixed, and who counts as white is extremely fluid. “A hundred years ago,” writes Ian Haney López in Dog Whistle Politics, “firm racial lines elevated Anglo-Saxons over the supposedly degenerate races from southern and eastern Europe.” For a large chunk of the 19th century — and a good deal of the 20th — America’s intellectual energy was devoted to policing the boundaries of “whiteness.” Race “scientists” like William Z. Ripley measured human skulls and examined living standards to delineate the “races” of Europe, linking head shape to supposedly racial qualities like beauty and intelligence. Others used these supposedly objective factors to exclude a variety of different groups — Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans — from the American racial category, envisioned as a white person of British or German stock. “White race taxonomy,” writes Nell Irvin Painter in The History of White People, “was evolving into notions of immigration restriction and eugenics.”

This leads us to an interesting thought experiment that highlights the implications of special government categories like “Hispanic.”

For example, if Italians were only several decades ago labeled colloquially as a separate race, how is it that by 2015, Italian-Americans like Antonin Scalia (a descendant of a Sicilian immigrant) was considered to be a member of the official white oppressor class?

It’s quite possible that Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans moved so quickly from “swarthy inferior” to “white oppressor” because their ethnic groups were never codified into a special category by government agencies.

Imagine, for example, that the Census and other agencies had created a special category for “Slavs” who are defined as descendants of people from Eastern Europe. This would group together Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and others. The group includes perhaps more than 20 million Americans today, with concentrations in certain cities and states. Would we today be arguing with each other about the “Eastern European vote” and whether or not American welfare policy pays enough attention to the “Slavic minority”? What if, instead of the term “Hispanic” the Census Bureau had created a more inclusive category simply known as “Latin” which would include Americans of Italian and Portuguese descent? Would Italians today still be seen as some kind of distinct minority instead of as ordinary “whites”? Would we demand that the Scalia seat remain the “Italian seat” on the court so as to cater to this persecuted minority? 

So much of our view today of identity politics is guided not by how individuals choose to organize themselves, but by government-invented categories.

The Role of the Media

The mass media then simplifies even further when it routinely casts Hispanics as a group with interests in opposition to those of whites. This simplification is perhaps best illustrated by how the media routinely ignores the fact that 53 percent of Hispanics self-identify as “white.” (Remember that Hispanics can be of any race.) It makes little sense to speak endlessly of white-Hispanic conflict when half of the Hispanic population is itself white. The implications of this extend even further into all the talk about the future of the United States as a “majority-minority” country. For example, Pew reports “In 2014, Latinos will surpass whites as largest racial/ethnic group in California.” Pew usually pays more attention to detail than this, but at least in this case, Pew is using the lazy man’s definition of Latino as necessarily something other than white.

However, all this talk of whites becoming a minority suddenly becomes a lot less interesting when one considers that half of the largest minority group think of themselves as white. Bouie noticed the obvious implications:

Going forward, will white Hispanics see themselves as part of a different race — light-skinned but distinct from whites — or will they see themselves as another kind of white? Will the government treat them as white in its forms and surveys, and will so-called traditional white Americans understand them as such? What about the children of mixed marriages? As Pew points out, we live in an age of intermarriage. More than 15 percent of new marriages are between partners of different races, and the large majority of them are Hispanic and Asian “out marriage” to whites. Will these children retain a racial identity, or will they join the vast tapestry of American whiteness?

These are critical questions, since — in a country where white Hispanics are just white, and Asians intermarry at high rates — the white population of the United States could stay steady or actually grow. [Emphasis added.]

Had the Federal government not invented the “Hispanic” category, it’s unlikely we’d be having this conversation at all. If we remember that, historically, a great many people of Latin-American descent simply identified as Caucasian or American, whites would likely still be counted by the government statisticians as — by far — the largest ethnic and racial group. Even in California.

On the other hand, were this the case, the state would be robbed of a myriad of opportunities to categorize people into special interest groups while stoking ethnic conflict, which also happens to conveniently justify a myriad of government interventions into the daily lives of families, businesses, and individuals.

Image Source: Marco Rubio/Gage Skidmore https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute