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The Hispanic Dilemma

Recently, a demographer filed a report for a Chicago suburban school district about its future enrollment projections. In it, he remarked that although the white population will remain as the dominant racial group in the district, the Hispanic population is projected to grow dramatically by 2011. This is to say there is a category of people characteristically and, to an extent, visibly different from white people just as we distinguish blacks, Asians, and Native Americans. But according to the United States Census Bureau, Hispanic Origin is not a racial category. In fact, the Bureau's document specifically states that "the Hispanic percent should not be added to percentages for racial categories." So why do so many people, including some experts, have such a hard time defining and understanding who Hispanics are?

The Census currently asks if you are of Hispanic Origin, to which one can answer yes or no. Based on this answer, combined with an answer on racial category, Hispanics can be subdivided into blacks, whites, Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Some Other Race, just as non-Hispanics are presented with the same set of categories. This arbitrary exercise attempts to recognize the diversity of Hispanic populations using an American context of race. Hispanic Origin most typically refers to those from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Central or South America. But this group also includes Spaniards and Filipinos who speak Spanish. Having lived under the racial dichotomy of black and white for most of its history, U.S. society has struggled with groups that do not fit into those two categories. Now that the percentage of Hispanics (14.8% in 2006) exceeds that of blacks (12.4%) as the largest racial/ethnic minority, it is time to be aware of proper classifications.

Hispanic & Other.
In 2000, Illinois had 1,529,141 residents who were classified as Hispanic, with nearly half (49.3%) living in Chicago. Racially, 45.8% of these Hispanics identified themselves as whites (700,156) and 46.5% were counted as Some Other Race (710,911). By 2006, the Hispanic population grew by 23.5% to 1,888,439, with substantial growth found in those areas outside of Chicago. In fact, 90.4% of all Hispanics in Illinois (1,707,810) reside in the Chicago metropolitan 6-County area, with 933,768 in the suburbs. The whites among Hispanics, however, did not grow as dramatically as those who selected the Some Other Race category: the whites increased by 2.4% to 717,089, while Some Other Race grew 50.6% to 1,070,556. This means that 38.0% of Hispanics were white where as those who identified as Other Race among Hispanics became the group's racial majority at 50.6%. This rapid growth of the Other Race category, and the declining rate of growth among Hispanic whites, may not be reflecting real changes among Hispanic populations but merely changes in how they racially identify themselves.

Spatially, the distinction between whites and Some Other Race seem quite evident, with substantially higher levels of concentration for Hispanic whites in the suburban areas. There are a number of ways to speculate why this is the case. It is possible that American racial categories are unclear to many Hispanics, particularly those immigrants who have never considered their identities along racial lines. Or, as European immigrants have previously experienced, being or becoming white is seen as an important indicator of assimilation.

This type of categorization constantly changes and that is why sociologists argue race and ethnicity are not biological, but a social construction. It is inevitable that the next generations of Americans will construct their own understanding of dealing with racial and ethnic diversity. When history reflects upon our interpretation, one can only hope the current tabulation is seen as a noble attempt rather than an ignorant one.


Kiljoong Kim is a research director in the College of Liberal Arts and Science. and a lecturer of sociology at DePaul University. For more Kiljoong, see the Who We Are archive.


Posted on March 10, 2008

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