Racial Identity Is Changing Among Latinos

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Some 6 percent of Latinos in the United States do not identify ethnically as Hispanic/Latino, according to a recent USC Dornsife study.

The study, led by Amon Emeka and Jody Agius Vallejo, assistant professors of sociology in USC Dornsife, was published in the November 2011 issue of Social Science Research.

Emeka and Agius Vallejo analyzed figures from the U.S. Census' 2006 American Community Survey and investigated why Latinos are identifying as non-Hispanic.

Currently, the federal government defines "Latino" not as a racial group but as an ethnicity, and Latinos can be of any race. Respondents are asked on U.S. Census and ACS forms "Is this person Hispanic, Spanish, or Latino?" which is followed by the question, "What is this person's race?" Researchers typically rely on the first question, the Hispanic ethnicity question, to determine the number of Hispanic respondents and the size of the Hispanic population. However, as Emeka and Agius Vallejo point out, analysts do not consider the way the question, "What is your ancestry?" is answered.

Of approximately 44.1 million U.S. residents who declared Hispanic or Latin American ancestry in the survey that year, 2.5 million - or 6 percent - did not check the Hispanic box and thus do not ethnically identify as Spanish/Hispanic/Latino. As a result, a correct analysis of Hispanic achievement and mobility in America is undermined. Data from U.S. Census Bureau surveys are used to make population projections and track the minority groups with the largest and fastest educational growths, and 2.5 million people with Latin American ancestry are left out of these analyses.

Respondents' confusion with the terms "ethnicity," "ancestry" and "race" often result in inconsistent answers on the U.S. Census surveys, the study found. Oftentimes the lines among these categories are blurred. And as immigrants assimilate, their identities shift.

Their findings suggest that some Latin Americans see themselves as non-Hispanic because a racial identity has become more salient in their daily lives. So they are checking the "white," "black" or "Asian" boxes.

Non-Hispanic identification was most common among U.S.-born Latinos, respondents with mixed ancestries, those who speak only English, and those who identify on the race question as black or Asian the study found.

"It is time that we rethink our definition of the Hispanic population in social science research. You essentially lose many people when you do not take the ancestry question into account," Emeka said. "That throws us off track when we are trying to figure out how much progress is being made among Latin American immigrants and their U.S. born descendants."

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