College of LAS « Illinois


Thinking Outside the Boxes

The changing face of the U.S. Census.

census form

Whenever Julie Dowling filled out forms for school while growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, she always had to pause when she reached the place where she was supposed to indicate her race.

Dowling is half Mexican and half Irish, but on forms she was asked to check only one box for her race. In Texas, the word “white” on forms was inevitably accompanied by “non-Hispanic” in parentheses next to it, so she knew that box was not for her. “Hispanic” was her only option.

This still made sense for Dowling because she identifies primarily as Mexican American. But for a friend of hers who moved to Texas from Florida, it was more complicated. This friend identified herself as both white and Cuban, but when she went into the DMV to obtain her new driver’s license, the person behind the desk looked at her Spanish last name and declared, “You can’t mark ‘white.’ You’re Hispanic.”

“It can be very confusing,” says Dowling, now a professor of Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois. “In Florida, my friend could be both white and Latino, but this was not possible in Texas because of the way racial categories were set up. There is a lot of regional variation in how race is understood and measured on forms.”

Across the country, she says, many Latinos and people of multiracial backgrounds do not always fit into the neat categories and boxes in surveys, including the United States Census that is conducted every 10 years.

With her Mexican/Irish heritage, Dowling says she has always been fascinated by how people identify themselves racially and ethnically, and she has done extensive research on racial identity for the past 15 years. Most recently, she was named one of 10 new members of the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations. She will be serving a three-year term on this 32-member committee, which advises the U.S. Census Bureau.

Racial identification on the U.S. Census has a long and tangled history. (See sidebar to learn about quadroons and octoroons.) Now, she says, the Census Bureau is considering the latest in a long line of changes to the racial identification question—a change she endorses.

Ever since 1970, the U.S. Census long form has had two questions dealing with race and ethnicity. First, there is a question asking people if they are “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” A separate question then asks respondents to identify their race, but “Latino/Hispanic” is not listed as an option, even though several Asian national origins are included, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese.

According to Dowling, research conducted by the Census Bureau during the most recent 2010 census revealed that many Latinos felt singled out by having their own separate question on the census—even though the question had been added decades ago to ensure that Latinos were counted.

Ironically, while some Latinos felt stigmatized, the research also showed that some European Americans thought the separate question gave Latinos preferential treatment. People of European descent had nowhere on the form where they could indicate their ethnic heritage, be it Irish, Scottish, Polish, or German.


Research also showed that the census form’s question on race resulted in skewed results for the percentage of Latinos identifying as white. Roughly 50 percent of Latinos identified as white, while most of the other half indicated “other race.” But when census workers followed up with a phone call, they found that many Latinos who identified as white did not really consider themselves white. Because “Latino/Hispanic” was not an option on the race question, they simply didn’t have any better category in which they fit.

Dowling found similar results in her own research described in her new book, Mexican Americans and the Question of Race. She studied Latinos in Texas, county by county, and she discovered that 80 to 90 percent of Latinos in the counties bordering Mexico identified as “white” on the census—even higher than the 50-percent figure nationally. She also found that there was a big difference between how Latinos identify themselves publicly and how they identify themselves privately.

When she interviewed respondents, she found that privately many Latinos did not really consider themselves white. But publicly, many of them identified as white as a defensive strategy in response to the racial profiling and discrimination they face. They were saying, “I’m on this side of the border. I’m an American citizen, and I want to be treated as a citizen. So for many, it was more of a desire to be accepted. It is also a result of Latinos just trying to fit themselves into a box in the absence of a Latino racial option.”

During the 2010 census, the Census Bureau tested out a new streamlined question that may better capture how Latinos identify, Dowling says. Experimental forms dropped the separate question for Latinos and offered only one question on race and ethnicity, breaking the categories into seven race or origin groups:

  • White
  • Black, African American, or Negro
  • Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • Other Race or Origin

The Census Bureau tested several formats, but the most popular one listed these seven categories, followed by a blank, in which people could indicate their specific ethnic group. For instance, they could write Mexican or Argentinian under Hispanic/Latino, Irish or German under white, or Mayan or Navajo under American Indian. Respondents were also told they can check more than one of these categories, so someone could check both white and Latino.

During the 2010 census, the new formats were tested with a half-million people. By adding “Hispanic/Latino” to the question on race, the percentage of Latinos identifying as white dropped from 50 percent to 9 to 16 percent (depending on the form). What’s more, follow-up phone calls showed that Latinos who identified themselves as white on the new forms really did identify themselves that way in their daily lives, so she says the data are more accurate.

Testing of the new forms will continue as the 2020 census approaches.

Meanwhile, Latino families such as Dowling’s continue to puzzle over forms. Her husband is Mexican American as well, and when their daughter was born in Illinois, the form for the birth certificate had no “Latino” or “other” option under race. The hospital staff said that Latinos go under “white” on the form. Dowling argued with them on this, but they refused to allow the question to be left blank. Something had to be marked, so they were forced to allow the hospital staff to identify them as “white.”

Dowling says that as federal forms change to more accurately reflect a person’s race or origin group, these changes will trickle down to affect forms at the state and local level—maybe even at hospitals.

The result?

“People will be counted in ways that are more meaningful,” she says.

Quadroons and Octoroons? The Changing Face of the U.S. Census

In 1890, the United States Census counted quadroons and octoroons.


Such terms have vanished into the dustbin of history, but “quadroon” means one-fourth African and “octoroon” means one-eighth African.

These long-forgotten categories are just two examples of how keeping track of race in America is a complicated, ever-evolving process. Counting the number of Latinos is also a good example of how difficult the task can be, says Julie Dowling, University of Illinois professor of Latina/Latino studies.

Under the question in which people are asked to identify their race, “Mexican” first appeared on the U.S. Census in 1930—the same decade when there was even a “Hindu” racial category. However, Mexicans protested the addition of the Mexican category because “they wanted to be recognized as white,” says Dowling. “They wanted to be accepted and have citizenship rights. This was a time where the best avenue for people to fit in was to claim whiteness.”

Many also feared that being identified as Mexican on the census would increase the chances that as new immigrants they would be deported. In the 1940s, census data were used to identify Japanese Americans and put them in internment camps during World War II.

After protests, the category “Mexican” was dropped from the census in 1940, so the Census counted Latinos as white for the next couple of decades. But in the 1960s and ’70s, things began to change once again. Mexican Americans and other groups now wanted to be counted so they could be included in federal programs that dealt with poverty and inequality. During this period, people also began to use the term “Hispanic” to cover all Latino groups, including Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and more. Prior to the 1960s, Latino groups were viewed separately.

Meanwhile, the number of racial and ethnic categories on the census expanded decade by decade, but the Hispanic/Latino category was never added to the census question on race. Instead, a separate question was added to the long form in 1970, asking people if they are “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.”

But that too raised some problems, so the categories might be changing again.

Dowling points out that “some other race” is now the third largest racial group after white and black, and as the demographics shift, if the form does not change she says “other race” might just become the second-largest group on the 2020 survey.

“But we don’t live in and have never lived in a black/white/other world,” Dowling says. “There are lots of groups that deserve to be included. It’s about giving people more options, not less options, to identify themselves.”

By Doug Peterson
Winter 2015