The Psychology of Why Hispanics Changed Races from One Census to the Next

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There’s a new race-switching phenomenon on the rise: more Hispanics are identifying themselves as white.


A recent Pew Research Center analysis of census data from 2000 to 2010 shows that millions of Americans changed their self-ascribed racial identity over the course of 10 years. And Hispanics — who some might of think as a race, but are not — are being credited with making the most switches from one camp to the next.

When the story was reported by The New York Times on Wednesday, some were seemingly offended that the author, who is white (and not Hispanic), tackled the subject at all. But people do switch racial identifications. The question is why.


Specifically, the Pew analysis notes that 2.5 million residents that initially said they were Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000 changed their self-identification to Hispanic and “white” in 2010.

It is important to keep in mind that while “Hispanic” is an option for the ethnicity box on the census form, it is not available in the race category, forcing most Hispanics to choose between white, black and “some other race.”

Back in March, I wrote a piece that might shed some light on this issue. According to Stanford professor Aliya Saperstein, who analyzed a survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on race, the reason might have more to do with internalizing popular stereotypes than anything else.

“The more you fit the stereotype of a particular racial group, in terms of your life experiences, the more likely you are to be seen by others, and identify yourself, as a member of that group,” she told me.


This means that if you are feeling the benefits of social mobility that are more associated with white mainstream America, you might start to self-identify as being “white.” And by that same logic, if you find yourself living in poverty and on welfare, experiences more commonly associated with minorities, then you might identify as such.

Taken in this sense, the number of Hispanic Americans who have come to identify as white might be a good measure of the current state of the group’s social mobility. A 2012 Pew study found that 67 percent of Hispanics (compared with 61 percent of the general population) say their standard of living is better than the one their parents enjoyed at the same age. Additionally, 66 percent of Hispanic adults expect their children to do better than themselves, compared to 48 percent for the rest of the population.


“We can learn a lot about racial discrimination and racial inequality by studying when and for whom racial categorizations [vary],” Saperstein said. “Racial perceptions and categories are absolutely dependent on social context.”

This theory could offer a clearer explanation of what the Times’ Nate Cohn was getting at when he suggested that census numbers showing that projections of America as a “minority majority” nation might be overblown.


The statement has nothing to do with race, at least as far as skin tone or ancestry. It’s more about striving to be part of the mainstream, which is still defined by white culture as of 2014. Obviously, this fact is problematic, but it is nonetheless encouraging to see that more minorities are feeling included in the mainstream. In reality, what is reported on census forms and how Hispanics actually look (and how they are perceived) in society are two entirely different matters.

For better or worse, the perceived “privilege” that white America enjoys is the ideal to which all groups strive. Past generations of Italians and Irish immigrants fought for years to become a part of the white mainstream.


Regardless of whether the census data has any intrinsic value, the fact that more Hispanics are self-identifying as part of the most stereotypically prosperous racial designation tells a minority’s success story — and that is something to be pointed out and celebrated.

One can only hope that someday, all parties will be invited to enjoy the privileges of mainstream America, regardless of which "race" box they check off.


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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