Some Black Puerto Ricans Choose ‘White’ On Census

The island has a history of encouraging its residents to identify as white.

The 2020 census will be an important way for people of color to gain more representation and resources for their communities. Unfortunately, there are many tricks white people in government try to play to skew demographics.

There have already been reports that the Republican National Committee is mailing out fake census forms in order to undermine a fair accounting of the population. And previously, the Trump administration attempted to put a “citizenship” question on the census in order to dissuade immigrants from Mexico and Central America from filling out the form.

In Puerto Rico though, there’s been a long-standing grift that has prevented the U.S. territory from receiving proper representation. A New York Times exposé recently found that on the 2010 census, more than three-quarters of Puerto Ricans identified as white even though much of the population on the island has roots in Africa.

While that number is down from 80 percent 20 years ago, activists and demographers say it is still inaccurate and are working to get more residents of African descent to identify as Black on the 2020 census in an effort to draw attention to the island’s racial disparities.

According to the Times, All residents of the island can select “Yes, Puerto Rican” on the census to indicate their Latinx origin. But when it comes to race, residents must choose between “white,” “black,” “American Indian,” an Asian heritage, or they can write something in. Most Puerto Ricans choose “white.”

Kimberly Figueroa Calderón, a member of Colectivo Ilé, a coalition of Puerto Rican educators and organizers, is trying to change voting habits on the census. She points to the Trump administration’s lack luster response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in September 2017.

Maricruz Rivera-Clemente, founder of Corporación Piñones se Integra, told the Times it took longer for electricity to be restored in Loíza than in the capital, San Juan, and other parts of the island.

“We have the same electrical connection, the same electrical source as Isla Verde,” she said. “We had no electricity until two months later.”

Colectivo Ilé has held workshops across Puerto Rico, teaching residents about the impact of the census and the achievements of Afro-Puerto Ricans.

“There are people that don’t want to use the word black because they think it’s an insult, and there is still that idea that we need to ‘better the race,’” Dr. Abadía-Rexach said, referring to mejorar la raza, a popular saying in Latin American countries suggesting light skin is more desirable than dark skin.

Antonetty-Lebrón says any shame in identifying as Black in Puerto Rico stems from a lack of positive or affirming images of Blackness. “The education system, which has never talked about all the contributions of Black people, has always shown us as slaves and not people who were enslaved,” she said.

According to the Census Information Center at the University of Puerto Rico, census data determines funding for federal programs based on population. In the wake of political unrest and natural disasters in Puerto Rico, the data also helps the government track population declines and the number of residents moving to the mainland.

Colectivo Ilé’s founders want their efforts regarding the 2020 census to drive social policy for all African descendants, including Dominicans, Haitians and other ethnic groups living in Puerto Rico.

“The way we measure and identify as black or white will affect how much inequality we see in society along racial lines,” Mara Loveman, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said to the New York Times. “I think it’s a really important symbolic politics to embrace blackness on the census, which is a highly political and politicized space. We will get a clearer picture of the state of racial disparities in life outcomes in Puerto Rico.”

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