CHICAGO -- A debate is raging about whether the U.S. Census Bureau should offer Hispanics the option of identifying themselves as a separate race in the 2020 count. But let's instead ponder how accurately they'll be defined.
According to a new study by Duke University professor Jen'nan Ghazal Read, policymakers should be working hard to ensure that demographic subgroups are portrayed as accurately as the data allow.
"While it's great that people are concerned about how they want to self-identify, what I'm concerned about is the information we overlook," Read told me as she described research she conducted on Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS) from the 2000 census.
In her study published in the journal Population Research and Policy Review, Read used two distinct subgroups, Mexicans and Arabs, to tease out very different stories about the nature of their circumstances compared to how the census usually describes them.
She found that if the census broadened its standard definition to include people who don't identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino -- but who were nonetheless born in Mexico or report Mexican ancestry -- in the "Mexican" Hispanic origin question, the number of Mexican-Americans known to be legally in the U.S. would increase nearly 10 percent.
This broader definition would make the entire universe of "Mexicans" better educated, more prosperous and more likely to identify themselves as white. And while this would deeply offend those who rankle at being considered Caucasian, Read's conclusions suggest to me that accuracy should trump identity politics. More importantly, the greater precision could lead to a better general image of Mexicans.
"I specifically used two groups that are hot-button issues in American politics to make the point that using a limited amount of data from the census skews how we see them," Read said. "The current numbers about the Mexican population quickly turns into rhetoric about them being a drain on the social safety net. But if you look at [numbers reflecting a broader method of classification], then Mexicans really aren't such a drain on the welfare system.
"If you portray the bigger group that way, they shouldn't be so ostracized for overusing the medical system."
It works the other way, too: If the census is the most powerful tool for allocating society's resources, then inaccurate definitions of certain populations risk overlooking those assumed to be doing well.
Had the 2000 census used a broadened definition for "Arab-American" beyond "Arab ancestry" to also include birth in an Arabic country or speaking Arabic at home, the total would have risen 13 percent, from 1.1 million to 1.3 million. And those added, Read said, would have been less educated, poorer and more likely to identify as non-white or multiracial.
To persist in using overly narrow definitions of particular groups, Read says, is to willingly see growing populations as having far different needs than the ones we erroneously believe we understand.
The teeth-gnashing that Hispanics are going through as census classifications for the 2020 count are determined illustrates how tied up in identity politics -- and ultimately unhelpful for determining need -- current methods are.
Take this startling data point: A January 2012 Census Bureau report -- "The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010" -- says that 175,494 Mexicans (Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano) self-identified as American Indian, making Mexican-American Indians the fourth-largest tribal group in the country.
Who's to say how many of them drive a Mercedes-Benz but feel spiritually "native" and how many live in the deep poverty of the reservation? Either way, it's clear we need a better way to figure out, and describe, who's who.
"Absolutely people will choose not to identify as Mexican," Read said, noting that many U.S.-born Mexicans consider the term "Mexican" synonymous with "immigrant," and others with Mexican ancestry seek to differentiate themselves from newer immigrants. In both cases, they reject the term "Mexican" in order to distance themselves from the negative stereotypes associated with foreign-born migrant workers.
"And nobody has to say they're 'Mexican' if they don't identify that way, but we don't want to be simplistic," Read said. "We want everyone to give us as much information as possible. And what I want is to see more attention paid to all of the information available and have it be made available to policymakers, not just researchers."
Let the competitive identity crises begin.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.