current events

CSI: Is that a Hispanic on the Morgue Table?


On an episode of CSI NY (Crime Scene Investigation), this past season, there was a murdered male whose body parts were left scattered throughout the four corners of Hell’s Kitchen (Episode: Sláinte). The investigators brought the torso back to the medical examiner’s office; where the ME stated “we don’t know much other than the victim is a white male.”  Really? How did they even know that? By the color of his skin, right? For all they could have known, it could have been a Hispanic male.  See, here is the situation. The United States Census is considering switching the Hispanic ethnicity category to race because Hispanics self-identity ethnically as Hispanic/Latino but then go on to choose “other” as their racial category on the census form. I am one of those “other” identifier. I chose “other”  for the 2000 census and did so for the 2010 census. I don’t see how my race will change by 2020, other than I guess I will be Hispanic all the way around.  But this change in the census form just goes to show, AGAIN, how race is really a social construct. It is how you decide to identify or what people may decide to identify you as based on color of skin, hair, facial features, or accent.

In Brazil (which by the way, the US government doesn’t often consider Hispanic) there are differing racial categories depending on the form.  There function follows form. On some Brazilian forms, there are five racial categories and when allowed to self-identify (open-ended question) you can get over 200 self-identified categories.  The often-used Brazilian five categories are very interesting: branca (white), parda (brown), preta (black), amarela (yellow) or indígena (indigenous). Is this better than the United States categories; which are: white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander (API) and American Indian/Alaska Native. But answer me this, what happens when a John Doe is being examined at the medical examiner’s office in Brazil?  Does the ME go down a possible  list of a 100 racial categories and try to match as best as possible?  Wouldn’t they just go by the color of the person’s skin? How often does the ME selection differ from that of the person when they were alive?  If Hispanic becomes a race, how would an ME in the United States know Juan doe’s racial group?

Anthropologists and historians have noted that race in Brazil is related to the concept of cor (“color”), used in a way that is roughly equivalent to the English term “race” but based on a combination of skin color, hair type, and shape of nose and lips.  Thus, oftentimes siblings and other family members belong to different “color” categories-Just like my sister and I or my son and I.  Genetic research on ancestry of Brazilians of different races has extensively shown that, regardless of skin color, Brazilians generally have European, African, and Amerindian ancestors-so a smorgasbord of races and ethnicities.  What does that mixed palette really look like and how do you name it? For what purposes does it need a name?

In the United States much government funding, published academic papers, and epidemiological data is based on race designation. Race, or rather the classification of race, drives much of the conversation in the HIV/AIDS field. Such conversations are what fall under the rubric of the so-called social determinants of health. Americans have really taken the lead in explaining how race is part of that social determinant of health -so much so that on a trip to Cuba as part of a public health delegation-Americans kept asking our Cuban hosts to explain how race impacts their health. But the big surprise to the American delegation was that the Cubans don’t collect racial data in that way and that their socialized system of medicine leads them to believe that race cannot possibly be a social determinant of health. Their belief is that a system of public health that ensures that healthcare access is readily available to all free of charge mitigates any so-called social determinant of health. Access is a determinant of health.  Oh what a tangled web we weave and try to impose on others around race. Accordingly, the census recommendations released this past August face stiff resistance from some racial and ethnic groups who worry that any kind of wording change could yield a lower number count for them and there goes the funding.

Interestingly or sadly, the CSI NY team apparently has no Latinos in their crime lab.  If there had been, would that Hispanic have stopped for a second to ask the ME “white, non-Hispanic? or white Hispanic?”  However, if we go by self-identification, do note that 18 million Latinos – or roughly 37%– used the “some other race” category on their census forms to establish a Hispanic racial identity. I will leave you as my last few words in this blog with the phrase I oftentimes begin my Who are Latinos presentation “Who is a Hispanic? Whoever says that they are.”

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