The 2020 U.S. Census largely undercounted Black, Latino and Native American communities, raising skepticism about the accuracy of its data. Even if the census had counted more accurately, it faces a more fundamental problem: Its race and ethnicity measurements overlook Afro-Latinos.
The 2020 Census faced many obstacles: the pandemic, natural disasters, labor shortages, President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric against Black and Latino immigrants, and his attempt to add a citizenship question. Many were thus reassured when the Census Bureau announced its first Latino and non-White director, Robert Santos.
However, even if the census improves enumeration, it still makes some identities invisible. The questions that it asks about race and ethnicity exclude Afro-Latinos — Black people with Latin American ancestry — from representation.
Afro-Latino identity has been complicated by transnational anti-Blackness and the particular history of race in the Latin American diaspora.
For centuries, Latin American political elites emphasized narratives of national sameness, playing down racial differences, even while their Black and Indigenous communities were regularly disenfranchised. American racism is largely based on physical differences, while racism in Latino communities erases and denies different racial groups’ diverse experiences. These inequities persist among U.S. Latinos.
Many Latinos are proud of their complex racial background, seeing themselves as having a beautiful mixture of Spanish, Indigenous and Black African cultures. Thus, Latinos tend to embrace cultural affinities to Africa, even as their physical appearances range the full spectrum of color. Survey research misses this complexity. For instance, it is hardly surprising that in a survey that asked Latino respondents whether they identified as “Afro-Latino,” most identified their race as only White.
Nationally representative samples of Latinos contribute to Afro-Latino erasure by favoring the densely populated Western region over the north and southeast coasts, where Afro-Latino enclaves predominate. This adds greater weight to non-Black Latinos and disregards the hardships specific to Afro-Latinos.
Though surveys treat Black Latinos as Latinos, U.S. society and institutions treat them as Black based on their appearance. Afro-Latinos’ looks can determine whether they are seen as professionals or as dangerous, as citizens to be protected or threats to be detained. As such, Black Latinos experience higher rates of discrimination than non-Black Latinos.