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September 8, 2013

CEPEDA: Identity can be many things

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.

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