WASHINGTON -- The Census Bureau is recommending that Hispanics be treated as a distinct race, a move that acknowledges the group's growing significance, but could reduce their numbers in future surveys.
The census currently considers "Hispanics" an ethnicity, allowing people to identify both as Hispanic and as a member of a separate racial group. The proposed change would drop the ethnicity question, and simply ask about race, allowing people to check a box next to choices that include black, white, or Hispanic.
The proposal concerns some Hispanic political leaders who fear that it would lead to a lower overall Hispanic count as some people of mixed origin choose to identify as white or black.
"This is a hot-button issue," said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino policy in New York City and a community adviser to the census. "The burden will be on the Census Bureau to come up with evidence that wording changes will not undermine the Latino numbers."
But others doubt it will undermine the numbers because Latinos who are of European, African or indigenous American descent will more likely choose Latino as their race if it's an option.
"There'll be a lot fewer Hispanics checking the white box," said Tomas Jimenez, a sociology professor at Stanford University. He said the proposed change might better reflect how Latinos define themselves. If anything, making Hispanic a race "will probably mean a decrease
The proposal was among several Census Bureau recommendations released Wednesday, stemming from new government research on the best ways to count the nation's demographic groups. The other changes would drop use of "Negro" from census surveys and add write-in categories Arabs and Middle Easterners to specifically identify themselves.
The changes are based on research conducted during the 2010 census that showed many people who filled out the traditional form did not feel they fit within the five government-defined racial categories: white, black, Asian, Pacific Island and Native Indian/Alaska Native.
More than 14 million Californians identified themselves as Latino/Hispanic in the 2010 census, and a growing number, in the race category, are describing themselves as "some other race."
Nationally, about 18 million -- roughly 37 percent -- Latinos used the "some other race" category.
"It's critical that race and ethnicity reflect how people identify themselves," Census director Robert Groves said.
The term "Negro" is slated for elimination after several African-Americans took umbrage with the 2010 census question asking if a person was "black, African-American or Negro."
Oakland NAACP leader George Holland said the term wasn't acceptable to him, but questioned its removal at a time when some older African-Americans still identify as "Negroes."
"I just don't want to cause any friction," he said. "I don't want to alienate anyone."
Government research in 2010 found that removing the term "Negro" did not lower the response rates among African-Americans.
The wording in census surveys can also be highly political: census data are used to distribute more than $400 billion in federal aid and draw political districts and thus can elicit concern if a change were to yield a lower response.
Whether the question is asked as a race or ethnicity, it is important to count Latinos and other groups, said UC Berkeley Political Science professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla.
"There are important disparities in health, education and economic indicators" she said. "The only way we can target intervention and make sure the intervention is working is to track these categories."
The government definitions of racial groups are set by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Currently, Hispanics are an ethnic group, which means although they share a common language, culture and heritage, they do not share a common race. They can be black, white, Asian, American Indian or descended from original peoples of a place colonized by Spain.
Changes to questions on census forms also must be approved by Congress.
Many demographers predict a wider range of responses on census forms and blurring of racial categories over the next 50 years as the minority population grows and interracial marriage becomes more common.
For many Latinos, the proposed changes could clear up some of the confusion around their identity on the census, but leave them in a quandary over how to identify themselves.
Richmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who is black and a native of Panama, said she'll simply check both boxes: black and Latino.
"I'm a Latin American who is now American, so I'm a Latin African-American. It gets to be a little confusing."
The Associated Press and Staff Writer Angela Woodall contributed to this report.