What race is Latino? We've pondered the issue before, and the correct answer is any of the above: Latinos can be black, white and almost anything in between, because Latino isn't a race, it's an ethnicity.

That makes things difficult enough for the folks who tally data for the U.S. Census, but now it appears there's a growing number of Latinos who don't even identify themselves as such.

A recent USC study says a lot of folks failed to check the Census' “Hispanic” box — people who could have done so, given their background — and that this is not good for the brown nation. According to a statement from the school:

As a result of some Latinos' propensity to not check the Hispanic race box on the census, a correct analysis of Hispanic achievement and mobility in America is undermined.

USC researchers are concerned because the Census is used to draw congressional district lines and help determine government spending. Latinos could be under-served as a result.

Boo-hoo, said Lou Dobbs.

But seriously, the study by USC's Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, published in the journal Social Science Research, found that about 6 percent of people with Hispanic or Latin American ancestry failed to check the “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” box on the Census.

That's 2.5 million people, almost enough to fill up the county of San Diego — and scare the hell out of the anti-immigrant suburb of Escondido.

But who are these people who don't think they're Latino? What are they? Aguileran?

Christina Aguilera; Credit: RCA

Christina Aguilera; Credit: RCA

Maybe they're those Latina Kim Kardashian wannabes you meet at the club who say they're “Spanish.” (These types used to be called coconuts — brown on the outside, white on the inside).

According to the school:

Non-Hispanic identification was most common among U.S.-born Latin Americans, respondents with mixed ancestries, those who speak only English and those who identify themselves on the race question as black or Asian, the study found.

There are also those folks who claim a clean and unfettered lineage that leads directly back to Spain (think Steve Lopez). (We call them people from New Mexico, where it's hard to find a Mexican, ironically). Why should they be Hispanic or Latino ethnicity when they're no different than someone with French or German heritage?

Laker Pau Gasol could certainly qualify to be part of the group with Hispanic ancestry but without Latino (a.k.a Latin American) ties. He's from Spain. And note that he's almost whiter than Conan O'Brien.

That's why West Coast Latinos have always embraced the term Latino. It ties the ethnicity to having indigenous, Latin American roots, not just Spanish ones. It differentiates people who are, say Mexican American, from Pau Gasol (no offense to either side).

If the Census did away with its ridiculous menu of ethnic options and stuck with Latino, as defined above, we'd clear up some of this.

USC seems to agree:

… Respondents' confusion with the terms ethnicity, ancestry and race often result in inconsistent answers on the U.S. Census surveys, the study found. Oftentimes the lines among these categories are blurred. And as immigrants assimilate, their identities shift.

But researchers think that using “ancestry” as a measure of ethnicity is a better tool. (As we demonstrate above, however, it might confuse Spanish with Latino).

Jody Agius Vallejo, assistant professor of sociology, blames assimilation for the disparity:

Scholars and politicians question whether and to what extent Latinos are assimilating. Some Latinos are not identifying as Latino and disappearing into the population.

Given the national debate on illegal immigration, though, maybe “disappearing” is the wrong word. Some folks see us everywhere they look, even if some of us are hiding behind words.

[@dennisjromero / djromero@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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