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Changes Needed for Classifying Race in America



Over the course of the past two months, I have contemplated a deeply personal issue: my racial and ethnic identity. Applying to law school is a difficult process for anyone, but it comes with extra baggage for a Mestizo person like me - someone descended from both the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Spanish settlers who colonized them. The terms "Native American" and "American Indian," which often appear on law school applications, are insufficient for addressing the unique history of Mestizo people. To remedy this problem, the United States Census Bureau should amend its racial and ethnic categories to specifically address descent from the indigenous peoples of the Americas outside of the United States.

Race is self-reported to the Census Bureau, and Mexican-Americans differ in how they choose to identify. More than 37 million Americans identified as Mexican-American as of the most recent American Community Survey, but fewer than 9 million Americans identified as part of the group "American Indian and Alaska Native," either alone or in combination with other races. The estimated Mestizo population in Mexico ranges from just under half to the vast majority of that nation's inhabitants. Perhaps immigration from Mexico to the United States has come disproportionately from the former's non-indigenous population, but in the absence of compelling evidence of such a phenomenon, the most reasonable conclusion is that Mestizos often do not consider themselves to be American Indians.

So how do Mestizos identify their race? Some may choose "White," a few may choose "American Indian," and a great many likely choose "Some other race." An article appearing in NPR last year noted that Hispanic Americans are likely to check this box because they do not identify with racial groups like "White" or "American Indian" and may not even know the exact racial composition of their ancestry. The "Some other race" label is deliberately non-descriptive so that it can serve as a catch-all for Americans whose identity falls outside the other categories the Census Bureau provides, but this limits its usefulness for researchers relying on Census Bureau data.

Mestizos are "White" and "American Indian," but they may feel hesitant identifying as such. The "White" label comes with the baggage of decades of racism in the United States, and although it is unfair to hold the wrongs of the past against the European-descended Americans of today, Mestizos are reluctant to identify themselves with a group they might associate with oppression. Conversely, Mestizos are also not "American Indian" in the narrower sense of being members of federally-recognized tribes in the United States. While checking the "White" box was easy for me to do in light of my father's non-Hispanic European ancestry, I have struggled throughout my life to resolve the dilemma of the "American Indian" box.

On the one hand, I feel a strong connection to my indigenous ancestry. When I took a DNA test through, my results were astounding: Indigenous Mexican ancestry is the single greatest contributor to my ethnic mix, coming in at 32.5% of my genetic code. Every New Year's Day, my mother cooks pozole, a traditional Mexican soup containing hominy, which is a nixtamalized corn invented by Indigenous Mexicans. When I think of my Mexican ancestors, I think of not only those who were Spanish but also those who were indigenous.

On the other hand, I cannot risk an Elizabeth Warren moment in my potential political career. Fraudulently claiming American Indian identity is a serious offense in the court of public opinion, and I would never seek to mislead anyone into believing that I have lived on a reservation, that I am a member of a federally-recognized tribe, or that I participate in the cultural activities of such tribes. In the interest of truthfulness, I tend to refrain from checking the box unless I have a space to explain that my American Indian identity is Indigenous Mexican and very different from the American Indian identity belonging to tribes in the United States.

The Census Bureau has a chance to allow millions of my fellow Mestizos and me to identify ourselves properly. By adding a "Mestizo" or "Indigenous to the Americas" category, or clarifying that “American Indian” includes these groups, the Census Bureau can prevent confusion, reduce overuse of the "Some other race" category, and allow Mestizos to identify themselves in the most truthful way possible. If other institutions follow suit, Mestizos may finally be free to tell the truth of who we are.

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