Sunday, February 28, 2010

Caribbeans urged to write in ancestry on US census

MIAMI — Identify yourself as being of "Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin" on the 2010 U.S. Census questionnaire, and you will get to be more specific about your ancestry, such as Mexican-American, Cuban or Puerto Rican.

But check the box for "black, African-American or Negro" and there will be no place to show whether you trace your identity to the African continent, a Caribbean island or a pre-Civil War plantation.

Some Caribbean-American leaders are urging their communities to write their nationalities on the line under "some other race" on the forms arriving in mailboxes next month, along with checking the racial categories they feel identify them best.

It's another step in the evolution of the Census, which has moved well beyond general categories like "black" and "white" to allow people to identify themselves as multi-racial, and, in some cases, by national origin.

The wording of the questions for race and ethnicity changes with almost every Census, making room for the people who say, "I don't see how I fit in exactly," Census Bureau director Robert Groves told reporters in December. "This will always keep changing in this country as it becomes more and more diverse."

In another push tied to the 2010 Census, advocates are urging indigenous immigrants from Mexico and Central America to write in groups such as Maya, Nahua or Mixtec so the Census Bureau can tally them for the first time.

The campaign in the multiethnic Caribbean community reflects a tendency, born from multiple waves of migration, to establish identity first by country, then by race.

"We are completely undercounted because there isn't an accurate way of self-identifying for people from the Caribbean," said Felicia Persaud, chairwoman of CaribID 2010, a New York-based campaign to get a category on the census form for Caribbean-Americans or West Indians.

About 2.4 percent of the U.S. population — more than 6.8 million people — identified on the 2000 Census as belonging to two or more races. A little less than 1 percent of the population — more than 1.8 million people — wrote in their West Indian ancestry.

And about 874,000 people — or 0.3 percent of the population — ticked boxes for Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders that year. If those islanders could get their own categories on the form, Caribbean-American leaders say, why not their communities?

Their lobbying efforts led to a bill in Congress requiring a box to indicate Caribbean descent on the census form, but it did not pass.

"We've really pushed so we can tell our story in numbers the way the Latino community has done by getting the origin category on the form," Persaud said.

Accurate counts in the once-a-decade survey ensure recognition from the federal government and the fair allocation of resources to state and local governments, advocates say.

While most Caribbeans are expected to at least check the box for "black," lumping them together with all African-Americans means corporations and politicians won't see the political, economic and social issues specific to their immigrant communities, Persaud said. They also won't see the size of those communities or get a sense of the diversity of experiences among Afro-Caribbean groups.

Persaud plans to check the "some other race" category and write in her nationality, Guyanese. Her father is Asian Indian, and her mother is black and Asian Indian, but she doesn't feel those categories reflect her blended Caribbean identity.

"We've always been able to say we're a mix, and then you come to this country and you're not sure where you're fitting under, so I figured that we're 'other,'" Persaud said. "That's how everybody feels."

Jean-Robert LaFortune also said the categories don't feel quite right. As he has on previous census forms, the chairman of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition in Miami will identify himself as black and as a Latino of Haitian ancestry, and he will write Haitian under "some other race."

Checking so many boxes doesn't mean he's confused. He considers identity in a regional sense: to him, Latino denotes anyone from a Latin American country. He said the Latin roots of French and Haiti's predominantly Roman Catholic religion bind his homeland to a community defined in the U.S. mostly by the Spanish language.

"As you can see, it will not be an easy task for the Haitian to fill properly the census form," LaFortune wrote in an e-mail.

The concept of identity can change over generations. LaFortune concedes that while some Haiti-born U.S. residents identify with Latinos, younger U.S.-born Haitians have grown up with a different understanding of what it means to be Latino.

A generation gap likely explains why 56,000 people wrote in "Negro" on the 2000 form, enough to prompt Census officials to include the word alongside "black" and "African-American" in 2010, said Florida-based Census spokeswoman Pam Bellis.

Efforts to push the federal government to recognize specific communities have grown since the 1960s, when residents began filling out the forms on their own, said Ann Morning, a sociology professor at New York University.

The Census Bureau first included the option "of Spanish heritage" in 1970, then added the term "Hispanic" a decade later. Before 2000, Native Hawaiians were counted as American Indians. That Census also was the first to offer the option of identifying with more than one race.

Now there's more recognition of diversity within the black community, Morning said.

"For so long, black meant a particular kind of ethnic identity — a native-born descendent of slaves who had been in the South generations ago," she said. "Now people are increasingly realizing there are other kinds of African descent."


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