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The Myth of the "White" Latino

Sloppy analysis of Census data is giving the Republican Party false hope

David Becker/Getty

Are Hispanics in America becoming “white,” as some commentators have claimed recently? If so, then perhaps the recent primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, which further dimmed the prospects for immigration reform this year, will not matter much politically, at least in the long run. After all, if Latinos are just white people in disguise, they should eventually warm to the GOP, the party most identified with white voters.

The argument for the whitening of Latinos is typically buttressed by data that show some overlap between the terms “white” and “Hispanic,” along with some vague allusions to how the Irish and Italians transitioned to white status over a period of time. The implication is that America will not become a majority-minority nation after all, but remain white, a boon to beleaguered conservatives. Democratic and progressive hopes of electoral domination, based on demographic change, will be dashed.

The latest edition of this meme was provided by the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, based on a recent Pew Research Center article which was, in turn, based on the some unpublished research recently presented at the Population Association of America's annual meeting in early May. This research found that, between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, 2.5 million Hispanics changed their racial designation from “some other race” to white, while 1.3 million Hispanics switched in the opposite direction, for a net 1.2 million Hispanics moving from some other race to white. (Race and Hispanic ethnicity are separate questions on the Census.)

There are two problems with using these data to infer a meaningful trend toward “whiteness” among Latinos. The first is that, as USC sociology professor Manuel Pastor points out, the Census Bureau changed its race question between 2000 and 2010: In 2010, but not in 2000, the race question included the boldface admonition, “For this Census, Hispanic origins are not races.” Since the Census provides a box to write in your “other race” and these write-ins are overwhelmingly Latino designations—Mexican, Hispanic, Latin American or Puerto Rican—it seems quite plausible that much of the observed switch from some other race to white among Latinos was attributable to following this admonition. In fact, Pastor notes that between 2007 and 2008, the Census's American Community Survey changed their wording on their race question in exactly the same manner. The result: an eight-point increase in the share of Latinos selecting "white" on the race question.

The second problem is that the overlap between Hispanic ethnicity and selecting white on a racial ID question is less meaningful than many commentators suppose. There have been separate questions on race and ethnicity for quite some time, which has always led to confusion. As demographer William Frey points out, the Census Bureau has recently been experimenting with a question where respondents can select Hispanic status or a standard race group as a single identifier and has found that the number of whites yielded by such a question closely tracks the number of whites we currently get by defining whites as non-Hispanic whites. So the whiteness of Hispanics as revealed by the two separate questions today may simply reflect the fact we currently ask two questions rather than one.

Beyond this, if these changes do, in fact, convey meaning about the self-identity of Latinos, we must recognize that racial self-identification is likely driven by the political and social circumstances surrounding race. It is costly to not be white in the U.S. On every measure of social, economic, and political mobility and inclusion, whites are advantaged in comparison to Latinos and African Americans. Beyond current demography, whites in the U.S. enjoyed legal advantages dating back to the country's founding. Non-whites could not naturalize to U.S. citizenship—Asians were excluded from naturalization until 1952. In the nineteenth century, there was a series of Appellate and Supreme Court cases legally debating the definition of whiteness, as group after group sought inclusion in the category as a means of accessing the privileges that came with it.

Furthermore, social attitudes tilted very heavily against Latinos between 2000 and 2010. Raucous debates over immigration, heavy-handed legislation by the House in 2005, large scale marches and protests in 2006 turning more than three million people out into the streets of the U.S., and two failed immigration-reform attempts in 2006 and 2007 could rightly be perceived by Latinos as threatening. Claims to whiteness on the 2010 Census, then, may be the natural result of wanting to find solace and some form of social inclusion.

Whatever the reason some Latinos call themselves white, it's been far less relevant to their social status than how the white majority sees them. For much of our legal history, from the Treaty of Guadalupe through the 1960’s, Latinos were white as a matter of U.S. law. This, of course, did not mean that they enjoyed the privileges associated with being “part” of the racial majority. Latinos still attended segregated schools, suffered employment and housing discrimination, and were excluded from juries. In several instances, Latinos successfully sued—in Westminster v. Mendez and Hernandez v. Texas—claiming those exclusions were unconstitutional for a variety of reasons, at least one of which was that they were “white” for the purposes of law.

In other words, agency in Latino society in America still rests overwhelmingly with the majority. Latinos can no more decide they are white than decide they are Irish. Ultimately, it is whites who decide who are white, and it is largely whites who will decide whether Latinos will have quality schools, equal job opportunities, secure voting rights, and acceptance and respect in American society. However many Latinos check the “white” box on a survey matters little to determining how the white majority perceives and engages them.

It also matters little in determining elections. Over the last 25 years, there has been a rapid growth of pan-ethnic identity among Latinos, more closely linking populations differentiated by national origin and generation into a more coherent and organized whole. This identity has resulted in growing political mobilization and unity. While the increase in Latino political participation has been frustratingly slow, their growing power has proven pivotal in places like California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida. Latinos—even those calling themselves white—vote overwhelmingly and increasingly Democratic. How they responded to a single Census question doesn't change that.