Racial Identification in Modern Day Mexico

By: Henry Rouse

Mexico’s government has recently taken steps toward, for the first time on one of their modern censuses, asking citizens whether they identify as black (or “jarocho,” “costeño,” or “moreno,” terms common in Mexico). This month, the government conducted a survey of about 5,000 households, asking about preferred terms and African descent. Next year they will include some form of those questions on a national population housing study of six million homes. That study will occur between full censuses, and inform whether or not such questions will be on the next full census, which is in 2020. In the meantime, it will allow for the first official estimate of Mexico’s black population.

The simple fact that the Mexican government is taking steps toward inquiring about black identity is progress for a place where public discussion of race is rare and discrimination is pervasive. African-Mexicans are advocating for the census count because they see it as precursor to acknowledgement in the Constitution, which in turn would lead to better services for their communities as well as an increase in study and appreciation of their history.

While this development in Mexico is surely a step in the right direction, gathering race/ethnicity data via census is a fraught process in and of itself. Clearly, pigeonholing oneself into a rigid category can be a painful experience of forced self-definition, as it constitutes a willed denial of the contingent, shifting nature of identity. What if your box is not there to be checked? Could there ever be a box big enough for you?

Indeed, the United States is currently struggling to utilize the race/ethnicity census data it has acquired in its censuses. After the 2010 census, the Census Bureau started a multi-year research project intended to improve the accuracy and reliability of its race and ethnicity data. This was spurred in part by the fact that millions of Americans changed their race categories between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, and that more than 6% of people selected “some other race” in 2010. Thus the U.S. data has been fighting against itself; questions designed to essentialize have largely captured the opposite trend.

And, in the end, race/ethnicity data provided in censuses seems a paradox. At the same time that censuses become more “advanced” in their delineation of racial categories – providing ever more permutations and vocabulary – their benefits are being diluted. That is, in theory a census is beneficial because it helps to provide a more accurate picture of the relative socioeconomic status of the citizenry, which in turn leads to a more equitable apportionment of resources (for example, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget has stated that such census data is crucial to determining everything from how districts are drawn, how federal aid is distributed, and how civil rights laws are enforce). Yet, it seems that fracturing the citizenry into more and more categories may serve only to further minoritize minorities and in turn decrease their weight for resource-allocation.

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