In the midst of the 2008 presidential election an article appeared on the MSNBC homepage titled “Multiracial Americans surge in number, Obama candidacy focuses new attention on their quest for understanding.”
The story was about individuals in America whose origins are of mixed race. It focused the discussion on individuals who are the progeny of a parent of African American ancestry and of another race.
Hispanics, the second largest population in the nation, were only mentioned in the context of a Puerto Rican (presumably of European descent) marrying an African American. The story was based on numbers of multiracial Americans identified through the US Census 2000 data. For that reason, it was incomplete.
According to the Census, Hispanics constitute approximately 15% of the total population in the nation, of which two-thirds is of Mexican origin. Ethnographic data about Americans of Mexican origin show that 6 out of 10 Mexicans are mestizo or of mixed race. That is, they are products of the Spanish conquest of the Americas and its native people. And yet, the MSNBC story on mixed race individuals asserted that less than 2% of the American population is of mixed race.
The contradiction in the Census statistics is an example of how the ethnographic data for Americans of Spanish and indigenous origins is not adequately captured by the decennial survey. Currently, individuals of Spanish and indigenous ancestry are classified as an ethnic group and referred to as Latinos or Hispanics. As a result, sociological constructs make the history of what may be the original mixed-race people of North America vanish.
Like many Americans, I dealt with the ‘mixed race’ issue while completing the Census 2000 form. As I reflect on the process, I realize that I was not comfortable with the responses I provided. The processes required me to answer the question of whether I was Spanish/Hispanic or Latino. Then, the following question was presented, “What is this person’s race? For this question it provided several options, including White, Black/African American/Negro, American Indian or Alaska native, Asian and various subcategories, Pacific Islander or some other race. A respondent could select more than one option. I wanted to mark ‘White’ and ‘Native American’. But choosing ‘Native American’ required that I provide the name of a tribe. So after affirming my ‘Spanish/Hispanic or Latino’ ethnicity, the form left me with no other option except to mark only ‘White’ for race. Other individuals who did not identify with any of the five major race categories address the dilemma by marking ‘some other race’. In fact, according to the Census, ninety-seven percent of those marking ‘some other race’ were Hispanic.
When it pertains to self identification, I perceive myself to be of ‘mixed race’ or mestizo. My features are indigenous and native to the Americas. And my surname and olive skin tone say I am also European of Spanish origin. However, not knowing the roots of my family tree, I could not claim with certainty that I am of either, especially the Native American ancestry. Like early settlers of North America of English, German and Irish ancestry who mixed with the native people, the indigenous family origins of Americans of Mexican ancestry have been lost in time. And that unfamiliarity with our native past leads us to check, or not check, categories on the Census form that only reflect part of who we are.
As an individual, I have never been overly concerned about how I am categorized by the government, as long as I am recognized as an American. And the positive attitude that exists among young people about race which seem to have manifested in the election of the United States’ first mixed-race President may indicate that there is a growing awareness that all Americans come from different origins but belong to one race, the human race. So the issue of race may be irrelevant soon enough.
However, as an individual in a society, I know that the government will continue to classify its population because by law a census must take place at regular intervals. So the socioeconomic and political nature of the information that is collected via the Census cannot be ignored or diminished. Aside from political apportionment, the Census data spurs a lot of writing and is widely used in all segments of American society to try to understand the population.
Thus, the MSNBC effort to be introspective about the ‘mixed race’ issue using Census information serves as a reminder that a more accurate identification of individuals who are the product of the coming together of indigenous Americans and Europeans is needed. And that a collection of census data which is more in tune with America’s past is critical to placing perspective to the existence of Americans of Spanish/Hispanic, Latino ancestry in the United States. Anything short of that marginalizes the complex mixed race history of the Americas.