Sunday, March 18, 2001
Cultural Confusion: No easy answers for census race question
By CLAUDIA MOSCOSO | News-Journal Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH — Ximena Mejia, the director of Stetson Cross Cultural Center, is a native of Ecuador and grew up in Central and South America. She is pictured with a U.S. Census form Friday. When she came to the race question, she chose not to mark any boxes to describe her race.
Option not to choose
Ximena Mejia, the director of Stetson Cross Cultural Center, is a native of Ecuador and grew up in Central and South America. When she came to the race question, she chose not to mark any boxes to describe her race. (N-J/Kelly Jordan)
Beaumont, 34, grew up in Boulder, Colo., hearing languages her parents and grandparents spoke - Japanese, Cantonese, Tag-alog and Mandarin. Her dad, a first generation Malaysian immigrant, and her mom, a third generation Japanese/Chinese American, taught Beaumont to take pride in her roots.
For the first time in history, Census 2000 gave people like Beaumont a chance to record multiple races. She marked three - Japanese, Chinese and Filipino.
"If you look at me, people always categorize me as an Asian," she said. "But Asians belong to very multilingual, multicultural groups. They do not speak the same languages, do not eat the same foods and have a different heritage.
"I don't call people who eat rice Asian because Latino Americans also eat rice, and they are not Asian," she added.
Over the last few weeks the Census Bureau has been releasing the first sets of state-by-state data from Census 2000, describing the growth of the overall population, and the country's racial and ethnic makeup. Information specific to Florida is scheduled for release the week of March 26.
State lawmakers will use the census to reshape political district boundaries. The information also is used to allocate more than $185 billion a year in federal money among states and communities - developing initiatives and projects that touch people's lives every day, from building new roads and bridges to implementing health programs.
At a recent news conference, officials with the Census Bureau announced that relatively few Americans nationwide identified themselves in Census 2000 as multiracial, with only about 7 million people - or 2.4 percent - reporting more than one race. And within that small group, only about 7 percent marked three or more races as Beaumont did.
Spokesmen for the Census Bureau said that prior to Census 2000, children of interracial couples faced a dilemma because they were asked to pick only one race, from among five racial categories - White, Black, Asian-Pacific Islander, Native American and Other.
Census 2000 was designed, however, to paint a more colorful portrait of America in response to those concerns. Last year's census questionnaires included six categories (Asian was split from Pacific Islander) and allowed Americans to mark more than one race, creating 63 possible combinations. Adding to the statistical feast, the racial classifications with the two ethnic choices (Hispanic or not Hispanic) produce a total of 126 racial and ethnic combinations.
Beaumont, a statistician and epidemiologist with the Volusia County Health Department in Daytona Beach, says the value of collecting data about race goes beyond recording racial pride. She believes the census would be useful in tracking down the incidence of diseases among certain populations, determine what kind of bilingual personnel are needed and develop specific approaches to launch prevention campaigns and other programs in communities across America.
But while Beaumont applauds the census effort to be inclusive and allow Americans to declare multiple races, others disagree. Deltona Commissioner Jose Perez believes the Census Bureau has gone too far.
"I'm confused, that's for sure," he said. "I would like to have (the data) more contained." Perez believes Americans in general are too hung up on classifying and labeling people.
"We have even established our own subgroups. You hear terms like New York Rican and Chicago Rican," he said. "Even we have our own disagreement on whether we are Hispanics or Latinos. We can't even get that right."
"I think we need to stop that," he added.
Perez, who considers himself a Puerto Rican American, also pointed out the need to educate college students about the diversity of Latin American and Caribbean people, including Puerto Ricans.
"Without that knowledge you still have a lot of misunderstandings. And with that in mind, assumptions are made about our culture, (including) when they draw up forms, such as the census," Perez added.
When census questionnaires arrived last year, people in Hispanic communities in Volusia and Flagler counties expressed confusion about the race question. Many believed that the question immediately before that one, which inquired about respondents' ethnicity - Hispanic or not Hispanic - would have sufficed.
Sources familiar with the Hispanic dilemma explained that asking Hispanics to track down their race could become a very difficult exercise given the diverse racial mix that has occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean since the conquest by Europeans centuries ago.
Upon receiving census forms, Hispanic sources told The News-Journal they were baffled by the race question, thought about leaving it blank, wondered if they should fill out that they belonged to "the brown race," and joked about "being from another planet."
Robert Sitler, a professor at Stetson University who frequently visits Mexico and Guatemala and has spent time with indigenous people in both countries, said the racial mix that occurs in Latin America and the Caribbean differs from country to country, and even within each country.
Sitler said that not even the word mestizo, which refers to people who are descendants from both European and American Indian blood, helps to describe the race of many Hispanics/Latinos.
"In Mexico the majority of the people are of both Native American and European ancestry, so it's hard to determine how mixed they are," he said. "Some of them are almost 100 percent Native Americans, but they speak Spanish and are culturally perhaps closer to Hispanic culture than they are to Native American culture.
"So the question is: Are they Native Americans or are they mestizos?" he asked. "Nobody knows."
To make matters more complicated, Sitler explained that in some countries, such as Argentina, white people didn't mix much since the indigenous people were nearly exterminated after the arrival of the Europeans. But other countries, such as Colombia, experienced a vast ethnic mix among indigenous, European and African populations.
Ximena Mejia, director of the Cross Cultural Center at Stetson University and a native of Ecuador, grew up in South and Central America without placing much emphasis on her racial identity.
"Over there the socioeconomic status is more important than race," she said. "So it was not until I came to the United States that for people my race was important. They were calling me Hispanic, and what they are calling Hispanic is that I'm brown or have an accent."
Based upon the ethnicity question, the Census Bureau reported this week that Hispanics reached 35.3 million - or about 13 percent of the total U.S. population. Nearly 48 percent of Hispanics identified themselves as white only and about 42 percent reported "some other race" only. Overall, Hispanics accounted for 97 percent of those who marked "some other race" only.
Early data from Census 2000 also shows that the Hispanic population in the nation has grown by more than 60 percent in the last decade, pulling Latinos into rough parity with blacks as the largest minority group.
Janet Williams, a member of Volusia County's Complete Census Count Committee, anxiously awaits the release of Florida's census data. She is concerned about the information that will be presented because recent estimates suggest that about 3.3 million of the nation's 281 million people were missed in the count, and many of them were minorities.
In a controversial move, Commerce Secretary Don Evans recently decided against adjusting the raw census data, citing that the number of people missed in 2000 was much lower than a decade ago.
Local residents are already preparing themselves for Census 2010. Beaumont, for instance, loves to spend quality time with her family at home, sharing the wealth of cultural knowledge her parents passed on to her.
She hopes that her daughter, 13-month-old Savannah, will learn about her diverse Asian heritage as well as her dad's Caucasian heritage.
If the same racial categories are available in the next census, Savannah could easily end up marking four of them, her mom said.