Is Hispanic an Ethnic Category or a Racial Category?

Sociologists use the terms race and ethnicity to mean different things even though many Americans use the terms interchangeably. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains why Hispanic origin is typically considered an ethnic category rather than a racial category. 

This post starts a bit differently than most. I want to begin with a few questions:

  1. What is race? Can you name two or three racial groups in America?
  2. What is ethnicity? Can you name two or three ethnic groups in America?
  3. What is the difference between race and ethnicity?
  4. Is Hispanic a race or ethnicity?

Sociologists use the word race to refer to categories of people who share distinct physical features. These physical features may be based in biology, but are granted social significance. For example, skin color, hair texture, and eye shape are all used in American society to determine a person’s racial categorization. In general, African Americans, Asian Americans, and White Americans are all considered racial groups.

Sociologists define ethnicity as a shared culture. For example, Jewish Americans would be considered an ethnic group because of their shared religious background. Chinese Americans would also be an ethnic group because of their shared nation of origin.

While many folks use the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably, they actually do refer to different things. Based on the above definitions of race and ethnicity, where do Hispanics fit?  Are Hispanics a racial group or an ethnic group?

Sociologists typically consider Hispanics an ethnic group based mostly on shared language (Spanish), but also shared nations of origin (i.e., South America, Central America). It certainly isn’t a neat categorization. As long as language is taken into account, then people from Spain (in Europe) and some people from the Philippines (in Asia) could be considered Hispanic. As long as nation of origin counts, then a person who emigrated to the U.S. from Argentina (but whose own parents immigrated from Italy) could consider themselves Hispanic. Brazilians get lumped into the Hispanic category as well, despite being a nation of both black and white Brazilians who speak Portuguese and have stronger African influences on their culture compared to the United States. As I say repeatedly in my Race and Ethnic Relations course, there is tremendous diversity within each overarching racial and ethnic categorization.

The point of the above rambling paragraph is to help us understand that people who are Hispanic may also be white, black, or even of Asian descent. This is one reason why the U.S. Census among other data-gatherers, tends to ask two questions regarding race and ethnicity along the lines of:

  1. What is your race?
  2. Are you of Hispanic or Latino origin?

The U.S. Census is contemplating changing these questions for the 2020 Census. Between 2000 and 2010, 2.5 million Americans of Hispanic origin selected “some other race” in 2000 and “white” in 2010 and 1.3 million people selected “some other race” in 2010 instead of “white” as they had done in 2000. For 3.8 million Americans, their racial identity changed in ten short years.

The change to the U.S. Census would allow people to select a race or origin and then provide additional detail as to what that origin might be. So, a person could select Hispanic and then specify Peruvian, just as a Pacific Islander could specify Fijan. To be clear, the U.S. Census is considering changing how they ask about race and ethnicity. They have not officially changed the form yet (if they do at all).

The point? How sociologists, demographers, and statisticians might define race and ethnicity are not always the same as how everyday people use these concepts. Moreover, these official categorizations are quite messy when you start to dig a bit deeper into just who gets classified where.

Dig Deeper: 

  1. Compare the concepts of race and ethnicity.
  2. Do you agree that Hispanic is an ethnic category rather than a racial category? Why or why not?
  3. Thinking like a sociologist, what role do you think that assimilation and discrimination might be playing in the notable switching of racial classifications among Hispanics between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census. (Read “More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White” for further insight.)
  4. Thinking even more like a sociologist, what do you predict will be the future for the concept of Hispanic?