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Why Latinos won’t become white

Assuming Latinos will join the white majority ignores the stark divisions in a racially diverse group

October 22, 2014 11:30AM ET

In the lead-up to the midterms, President Barack Obama has been parroting the conventional wisdom about the GOP’s future: Republicans are doomed if they keep up their opposition to immigration reform and continue the inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric. “It’s anybody’s guess how Republicans are thinking about this,” he said during a town hall event in Santa Monica, California. “If they were thinking long term politically, it is suicide for them not to do this.”

Latinos make up 14 percent of the population, and their share is projected to grow to 29 percent by 2050. This demographic traditionally identifies with the Democratic Party; the toxic immigration debate in Washington, fueled by xenophobes in the GOP, will only increase that tendency. In 2006, 49 percent of Latino eligible voters identified as or leaned Democratic. By 2011, that number jumped to 67 percent. With the United States projected to become a majority-minority country by 2043, Republicans’ chances of winning the White House on the backs of white voters will grow ever slimmer.

But a counternarrative, one that would put Latino votes back in contention for the GOP, has begun to emerge. In the coming decades, Latinos could become “white” — a process in which cultural assimilation would presumably be followed by political realignment — opening them up to affiliation with the Republican Party. It’s a theory espoused most prominently by Slate political writer Jamelle Bouie, who argues in the winter issue of Democracy that “the future won’t be majority-minority; it will be a white majority, where Spanish last names are common.” But this vision of complete assimilation ignores the stark racial divisions in Latin American societies, in which socioeconomic status and skin color, as in the U.S., tend to fall along parallel lines.

Ethnic attrition

The idea of Latinos becoming white in the American sense — a vision of racial and cultural assimilation independent of self-identified race — isn’t a new one. Economists Brian Duncan at the University of Colorado and Stephen Trejo at the University of Texas at Austin call it ethnic attrition. As Latinos intermarry and climb the socioeconomic ladder, the theory goes, they are less likely to self-identify as Hispanic. Duncan and Trejo’s research shows (PDF) that while virtually all first- and second-generation Hispanic immigrants identify as Hispanic, in the third generation, those of mixed heritage start to self-select out of this group. Among third-generation immigrants with only two Hispanic grandparents, 79 percent identify as Hispanic. Among those with only one Hispanic grandparent, the number falls to 58 percent. Think of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father is Cuban and whose mother is white, or comedian Louis C.K., whose grandmother is Mexican and whose other grandparents are Irish and Hungarian.

Racial self-identification tends to be reflected in one’s politics. A recent analysis of election-survey data by Spencer Piston, a political scientist at Syracuse University, shows that lighter-skinned Latinos, who are more likely to identify as white, vote Republican at higher rates than those with darker skin. Bouie’s prediction is that in the future, more and more Latinos will identify as white and that a substantial number of them will also identify as Republicans. Democrats’ dreams of a solid future majority could thus be imperiled.

History shows just how fluid such self-identification is. As historian Noel Ignatiev argues in his landmark work, “How the Irish Became White,” when Irish immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1800s, they faced significant discrimination at the hands of the Anglo-American ruling class. Irish-Americans were for generations a reliable Democratic voting bloc, but intermarriage and the Democratic Party’s embrace of African-American rights led to a political realignment. Irish-Americans came to view themselves — and be viewed — as part of the white mainstream. While these voters continued to lean Democratic, by the 1980s they joined the coalition that elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency.

Overlooked in discussions about Latino racial identity is the persistence of discrimination, which tends to strengthen existing racial categories.

Will Latinos follow the patterns of Irish immigrants before them? To an extent, certainly. One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this — and the reason Latinos are the group commentators most frequently talk about becoming “white” — is that interracial marriage rates are highest between whites and Hispanics. A full 80 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans are the product of intermarriage. Another finding that has fueled much of the recent discussion about Latino self-identification is a study from the Pew Research Center earlier this year showing that 2.5 million Americans changed their self-identified race and ethnicity from “Hispanic and some other race” in the 2000 census to “Hispanic white” in the 2010 census.

But as Julio Varela at the blog Latino Rebels suggests, the 2.5 million Latinos who switched their identity from just “Hispanic” to “Hispanic white” most likely reflects confusion or ambivalence about how to label oneself rather than a realignment of racial identity. Case in point: The same study of census data showed that 1.3 million Latinos made the switch in the opposite direction.

Diverse identities

By assuming uniform motivations, the “today’s Latinos, tomorrow’s whites” framework also flattens a racially diverse group — one that includes light-skinned people whose ancestors hail from Spain; indigenous South Americans; blacks in the Caribbean, Brazil and Colombia with roots in Africa; Asian immigrants to Latin America; and those with mixed European and indigenous heritage.

Immigrants hailing from the 20 countries south of the U.S. border, tend to share certain characteristics. Reflecting a history of colonization, they tend to speak Spanish or Portuguese and practice Catholicism; their families tend to be bigger; Latin American cultures tend to be more collectivist. In the U.S., attacks on immigrants have increasingly made those with roots in Mexico and Central and South America see their political fates as intertwined. But if asked, most Latinos in the U.S. refer to themselves by their national-origin group — Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban. And while it doesn’t look like immigration reform is passing any time soon, if it does, Latinos may be even less likely to use the pan-ethnic Latino label.

This isn’t to say that light-skinned Latinos of European descent won’t increasingly assimilate into the white mainstream as Irish (and Italian) immigrants did. That’s already happening, to an extent. But whether this will be the case with other subgroups is an open question, in part because there isn’t much data on it. Because of the persistence of the United States’ limited black/white/Asian/Latino classification system, we don’t know the intermarriage rates between black Hispanics and whites or whites and Hispanics of indigenous descent. Nor do we know the racial composition of Hispanics who checked — or did not check — the “white” box in the 2010 census.

Finally, a simple but important factor that often gets overlooked in discussions about Latino racial identity is the persistence of discrimination, which tends to strengthen existing racial categories. (Remember that even highly successful mixed blacks such as the president continue to face discrimination, and while Obama jokes about standing out as white among blacks, most of the American public considers him black.) To ask whether Latinos will see themselves as Latino or white in the future is also to ask how long the GOP will continue to be dominated by the likes of Iowa Rep. Steve King, who said that for every undocumented minor who becomes a valedictorian, “there’s another hundred out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

Gabriel Arana is a contributing writer at Salon and a contributing editor at The American Prospect. Follow him on Twitter: @gabrielarana. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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