Who's to say Jeb Bush isn't really Hispanic?

So the son of George H.W. Bush (Greenwich Country Day, Phillips Academy) and Barbara Pierce (Rye Country Day, Ashley Hall) thinks he’s Hispanic. Or thought he was. The New York Times reported that Jeb Bush marked “Hispanic” on a 2009 voter registration application in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Bush made light of the “mistake” on Twitter. But it’s hard not to think there’s something more to it.

Bush lived in Venezuela as a young man and speaks fluent Spanish. He is married to a woman from Mexico and converted to her religion, Catholicism. His children are Hispanic. The population of Miami-Dade, where he resides, is two-thirds Hispanic. If you never met him – and didn’t know that his grandfather was Sen. Prescott Bush of Greenwich, Connecticut – you might assume from the above description that Bush is, well, Hispanic.

And who’s to say he isn’t? After all, isn’t “Hispanic” partly a contrivance – a bustling corner where the bureaucratic drive for categorization meets the mongrel realities of the New World?

Here is how the U.S. Census Bureau defines the term:

“Hispanics or Latinos are those people who classified themselves in one of the specific Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino categories listed on the Census 2010 questionnaire -'Mexican,' ‘Puerto Rican,' or ‘Cuban'-as well as those who indicate that they are ‘another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.’”

That’s the dubious nature of racial and ethnic classification – a Hispanic is someone who chooses “Hispanic” on a form. There are Hispanics who have lived in the American Southwest since long before the nation was born. And Hispanics who arrived from Spain this year. Blacks are Hispanic. Whites are Hispanic. And Hispanics can call themselves white or black or something else altogether if they have a plausible claim – or even if they don’t. All of which means that if Bush were to classify himself on the census the same way he classified himself on his 2009 voter registration, the Hispanic population in the U.S. would officially increase by one.

David Frum wrote that the “central drama” of Bush’s life is his alienation from his family’s WASP roots and his adoption of a new “ethnocultural identity” through marriage. (Frum even sees Bush’s empathy for immigrants informing his registration “mistake.”) As husband and father, Bush has powerful reasons to identify with the Hispanics who embody his nuclear family. And since most of the people in his community are also Hispanic, Bush has literally surrounded himself. That’s no mistake.

As the U.S. moves into a multiracial 21st century – about 15 percent of the country’s new marriages in 2010 involved interracial couples, according to Pew Research Center– efforts at racial and ethnic classification will only get messier. (They’re plenty messy now. When I asked an immigration activist what exactly a “Hispanic” is, he replied with the email equivalent of a shrug.)

Such categories will also be increasingly elective. Not that this is exactly new. The president of the United States says he is black. Others, with mixed racial compositions ranging from very to vaguely similar to his, have at one time or another checked a different racial box. Who is what? Who gets to say?

On the definition of Hispanics, the Census further states: “People who do not identify with one of the specific origins listed on the questionnaire but indicate that they are ‘another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin' are those whose origins are from Spain, the Spanish-speaking countries of Central or South America, or the Dominican Republic.

Or perhaps they are simply people who, for one reason or another, feel pretty gosh darned Hispanic. Like the Bushes of Miami-Dade.

Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.