Richard Gonzales | Fort Worth Star Telegram

In Latino eyes, race is just not a matter of color—race is also a slide-rule measurement of inclusion that shifts as Latino fortunes fluctuate. Some Latino families consist of those who identify as white and those who identify as “some other race.”

Similar to the American Civil War era, when brothers were divided in their choice between the blue and the gray, Latinos are divided on their choice between identifying themselves as white or brown.

For those Latinos who pick white, their whiteness is a badge of success. As for those Hispanics who choose brown, they struggle for entry into the mainstream.

In a study of Census 2000 data released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center, researcher Sonya Tafoya examined responses to questions relating to race and Hispanic origin. Hispanics can be of any race.

Census respondents could choose from six racial categories, including an interesting option listed as “some other race,” and could choose more than one category. That meant that there were 63 possible combinations of the six basic racial categories.

The Census Bureau recognized that in a diverse country, Americans should be given the liberty to identify themselves on their own terms, not the government’s.

Tafoya found that of those choosing to identify themselves as Hispanic, 48 percent identified as white and 42 percent saw themselves as “some other race.” In fact, the vast majority of Americans choosing “some other race” were Hispanics.

In Texas, where Latinos experienced both Southern-style racial segregation and the civil rights movement, 63 percent of U.S.-born Latinos identified themselves as white. In the rest of the country, particularly California, 45 percent of native-born Latinos identified as white.

One can surmise that in a state where the wrath of racism struck hard, a good defense would be to take on the white persona as quickly as possible. Thus we have Martinez, Gonzales, Lopez and Rodriguez becoming Martin, Zales, Lopes and Rodger.

If white is viewed as the color of success, then millions of Hispanics aren’t feeling included in the full benefits of American life.

Tafoya explored the differences between Hispanics who described themselves as white and those who did not. Through a 2002 National Survey of Latinos, she found that those who are more educated, affluent and involved in their communities and who consider themselves Americans are more likely to identify themselves as white.

Millions of Latinos who were younger, less educated, poorer and less likely to speak English tended to find themselves socially and economically marginalized and chose “some other race.”

Tafoya’s report highlights the danger of viewing Latinos as a homogeneous population. She finds that foreign-born Cubans are quicker to assume a white identity than any immigrants born in Latin America. Her data show that 90 percent of naturalized Cuban-Americans saw themselves as white as compared with 23 percent of Dominicans.

The exile experience and Cuban-Americans’ eagerness to embrace American social, economic and political cultures have propelled them into a model minority status. But they have not forsaken their heritage. They celebrate Cuban culture, literature and history and talk of rescuing their homeland from Fidel Castro.

It’s troublesome that more than 9 million Latinos of Mexican heritage didn’t feel comfortable with a white identity. Tafoya points out that nearly half of a growing segment of the U.S. population is feeling left out. As the number of Hispanics increases, so, too, may their disenchantment.

Some Latino political activists have accused the government of diluting the presence of Latinos by forcing them to identify themselves as white. They complain that white politicians have used the inflated white census figures to justify over-representation of whites in office. As long as the Hispanic or similar subcategory remains, a true Hispanic tally will be calculated.

The challenge for Mexican-Americans is to recognize that racial perception is not about the color of one’s skin. It’s about reconciling their aspirations as Latinos with the “white” behaviors that lead to success in America.

Clear Latino eyes can see that it’s not about race so much as being in the race.