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To Police, Ethnicity Is a Descriptive Aid

August 20, 2000

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez ("When Taking the Easy Way Out in Racial Labeling, the Truth Suffers," Aug. 14) is missing the point. In the cop's question "Is he white, black or Hispanic?" the question is not ignorant; it is for descriptive purposes, to assist in finding her friend. The police officer is not interested in the missing friend's ethnic heritage. The officer needs to know what the missing person looks like. Ethnicity is a physical description, just as height, weight, age, hair and eye color are.

The terms "white," "black" and "Asian" are just as broad as the so-called label of "Hispanic." I am five-eighths Swedish, one-eighth Norwegian, one-eighth English and one-eighth Dutch-Irish. I am fourth-generation American and second-generation Californian. When asked about my heritage, I reply "mostly Swedish." Because I married a man with a German surname, I am often mistaken as being of German descent. I am quick to correct that assumption because I am proud of my Swedish heritage. But when I am asked my ethnicity for statistical or identification purposes, I reply "white" because that is the category into which a Swedish-Norwegian-English-Dutch-Irish-American-Californian person falls. I do not become offended at the question nor at the fact that there is not a specific category for my particular background. I guess I'm just not that hypersensitive.

--INGRID BRAUN

Santa Clarita

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I agree completely with Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez's dissatisfaction with the label "Latino" or "Hispanic" being commonly understood to refer to a brown-skinned Mestizo.

I am an Anglo of Irish descent married to a Mexican-born woman of primarily Spanish descent. Her mother was perhaps half Indian. So my children are white and "Hispanic," or Mexican, if you choose, with some Indian blood. In the same way, [baseball player] Sammy Sosa's kids could be described as black, and "Hispanic" or Dominican, with perhaps some white blood on his wife's side.

But we still need some realistic way of describing people for purposes such as law enforcement etc. What does Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez suggest?

--MIKE BURNS

Bakersfield

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