LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
More than 1 in 7 people living in the U.S. identify with a mysterious racial category. It's called, quote, "some other race," and it is now the country's second-largest racial group after white, according to the latest census results. Many experts say that's a big problem for protecting people's civil rights. NPR's census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang explains.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: For two people I interviewed, the census question about race has been almost impossible to answer.
LEANI GARCIA TORRES: I actually remember calling my dad and saying, what are race you putting? I don't know what to put.
FRANK ALVAREZ: I almost wanted to just skip that question, to be honest.
WANG: That was Leani Garcia Torres...
GARCIA TORRES: I live in Brooklyn, N.Y.
WANG: ...And Frank Alvarez.
ALVAREZ: I'm from Los Angeles, Calif.
WANG: For the 2020 Census, both of them identified as Hispanic or Latino, which is an ethnicity, according to the federal government, and not a race. Alvarez and Garcia Torres say the racial categories that were on the form didn't really fit them, not the boxes for American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander groups, Black or white.
GARCIA TORRES: Both of my parents are from the island of Puerto Rico.
ALVAREZ: Growing up, you know, we were in a very traditional Guatemalan home.
GARCIA TORRES: We're just historically pretty mixed.
ALVAREZ: I think I just identify with my ethnicity.
GARCIA TORRES: If you look at anyone in my family, you wouldn't really be able to guess a race. We just look vaguely tan, I would say.
WANG: So for last year's head count, Garcia Torres and Alvarez were among the nearly 50 million people who checked off some other race or wrote in an answer the Census Bureau sorted into that category. And more than 90% of that group is Latino.
CRISTINA MORA: This is a red flag. It's been a red flag that's been around for a very long time.
WANG: Cristina Mora is a sociologist at UC Berkeley who studies race and ethnicity. Mora says the some other race category is obscuring the identities of many Latinx people. And that makes it harder to enforce anti-discrimination laws.
MORA: If we're not represented in the data, we're never going to have a true sense of racial justice. We're never really going to have a sense of, who is this rapidly growing, dynamic and diverse population in this country?
WANG: After the 2000 count, the Census Bureau almost got rid of the some other race category. Officials thought that could have helped more Latinos answer the race question.
CLARA RODRIGUEZ: For a long time, there was the sense that there wasn't anything wrong with the question.
WANG: This is Clara Rodriguez, a sociologist at Fordham University and author of "Changing Race: Latinos, The Census And The History Of Ethnicity In The United States."
RODRIGUEZ: But rather that Hispanics didn't understand the question. And I remember thinking, wow, some other race was something to be taken seriously, not to be dismissed as a misunderstanding.
WANG: The Census Bureau did propose changing its questions for last year's count. Research show that if it combined the two separate questions about Latino origins and race into one, it could reduce the share of people identifying as some other race, and it would not skew the shares of Latinos who also identify as Black or white. But that change required approval from the White House's Office of Management and Budget during former President Donald Trump's administration, and that didn't happen. Now that planning has started for the next census, Nancy Lopez, who is a sociologist at the University of New Mexico, wants to see a different kind of race question added.
NANCY LOPEZ: Not every Latino is a brown-skinned Latino. There are white Latinos. There are Black Latinos like myself, and there are Latinos who are also street-race Asian.
WANG: People's street race, Lopez says, is what they think strangers assume their race to be.
LOPEZ: The national guidelines need to understand that discrimination is happening based on how you look - right? - the visual cues that people assume represents something about you.
JULISSA ARCE: It's important to be able to click a box that says who we are instead of what we're not.
WANG: Julissa Arce is an immigrant from Mexico who now lives in Los Angeles. Last year, she clicked the boxes for American Indian, Chinese and some other race.
ARCE: We've been here since before it was called the United States, and I think we deserve to be accurately represented.
WANG: And for Arce, that means having a racial category on the 2030 census for Latino.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.