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The Los Angeles Times

January 27, 2003

COMMENTARY
'Minority Groups' Have Outgrown Their Labels
'Latino' or 'black' says little about how people see themselves.

By Geoffrey Fox, Geoffrey Fox is the author of "Hispanic Nation: Culture, Politics and the Constructing
of Identity" (University of Arizona Press, 1997).

T he confused reaction to the U.S. Census Bureau's new report that "Hispanics and Latinos"
now outnumber "blacks" suggests that it's time we abandon the phrase "minority groups"
to describe nonwhites in the growing complexity of our nation's population.
Not only is it misleading to speak of such huge numbers as "minorities," there is the larger
question of whether these are really "groups." And while we're at it, we'd be better off
dropping the concept of "race" as well.
The bureau reported that there are now, in bureau terminology, more "Hispanics or
Latinos" (37 million) than "blacks or African Americans" (36.2 million) in the land.
Commentators saw this as foreshadowing a struggle over which "minority group" will have
more clout, as though these were two opposing teams.
In fact, both of these population categories are statistical abstractions bearing little relation
to how people see themselves or where they place their loyalties.
Furthermore, the two categories are constructed on different principles, so they are not
even comparable; we can't really say which is larger, or what the size might mean politically,
socially or economically.
Unlike any other census ethnic category, the "Hispanic or Latino" count is made up of
people who listed themselves as something else: "Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or
South American, or some other Latino origin," as the census form puts it.
All those who checked off one or another of those options then got reclassified by the
bureau into the bigger category of "Hispanic or Latino," regardless of whether that was how
they saw themselves or if they felt any affinity to the others in the group.
So does the growth of this census category portend a powerful new Latino voting bloc?
Not likely. For one thing, a big part of the growth is from new immigrants, who couldn't vote
even if they wanted to. Among those who are citizens, there are deep divisions stemming
from their differing histories.
Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizens since 1917, are hard to mobilize around immigration issues,
which are of deep concern to many Mexicans, Central Americans and others. In most big
cities, getting these groups to cooperate has been the major challenge to politicians seeking
the "Latino" vote.
In the Southwestern states, self-styled "Hispano" descendants of old-time settlers are
reluctant to vote for "Chicanos."
The most glaring political division among Latinos is the overwhelming tendency of Cuban
Americans, especially those in Florida, to vote Republican, whereas most other Latino groups,
when they vote, vote Democratic.
The other, supposedly rival, minority group -- "black or African American" -- is an
abstraction based on what people check off as their "race." And "Hispanics," as the Census
Bureau continually reminds us, "can be of any race."
But what is race? According to the census form, you can be "white," "black or African
American," "American Indian and Alaska Native," "Asian," "Native Hawaiian and other
Pacific Islander" or "other."
What are we talking about here? DNA? Soul music versus salsa versus polka preference?
Preferred body image? It was up to each respondent to decide.
Many Latinos found the question so incomprehensible they checked "other."
In all, about 4.1 million people -- Latinos and others -- rejected all the single race
categories. Of these, 1.5 million listed themselves as black "in combination with one or more
other races."
What the census figures suggest, but can't possibly contain, are highly mobile emerging
identities. Sometimes, on particular issues, there undoubtedly will be competition between
people calling themselves "black" and others who call themselves "Latino," just as there is
competition among groups within each of those larger categories.
The larger significance of the census findings is not that there will be two rival groups, but
that there are growing numbers of "people of color" who are going to insist on defining
themselves and their own agenda in their own ways.
The only reliable things the new census figures tell us are these: First, there is a very large and
growing pool of people who might, if they choose, think of themselves as "Hispanic" or
"Latino" -- and thus might be mobilized as an electorate or market. Second, fewer and fewer
Americans are willing to let themselves be defined by any single "race."
Some part of that "Latino" pool will, undoubtedly, act as a more powerful nationwide
ethnic lobby, but not necessarily in competition with "blacks."
On some issues -- immigration and language rights especially -- many of them are likely to
vote as "Latinos." On others, such as demands for equal treatment before the law, many will
think of themselves first as "people of color" or even "blacks."