May 03, 2016

  By David Morse / New America Dimensions

Writer Richard Rodriguez calls Richard M. Nixon the inventor of Hispanics.

His logic? In 1972, Nixon signed a federal mandate called Statistical Directive 15, establishing the current system of classifying Americans into five racial or ethnic groups: White, African American, American Indian / Alaska Native, Asian / Pacific Islander, and Hispanic.

In Rodriguez's words: "I have traveled throughout Latin America and I have looked for Hispanics. Everyone tells you there are no Hispanics there. Essentially, the whole category of the Hispanic is in fact an American fabrication."

Fabrication or not, Hispanics clearly do not represent a race. Rather, the category represents people of multiple racial backgrounds: Indigenous, African, European and Asian.

Establishing an official Hispanic category was big.  As late as the early 1970s, there was little or no standardization in the racial classifications used by various government agencies. Some agencies reported data for whites and non-whites; others kept records for whites, blacks, and others; a few agencies such as the Census Bureau used a larger set of categories.

Directive 15 changed all that.  And it changed the way that America viewed Hispanics.  At least statistically.  

In 1980, the U.S. Census began to ask all people whether they were of “Spanish/Hispanic origin or descent.”  The possible responses: “No (not Spanish/Hispanic); Yes, Mexican, Mexican-Amer., Chicano; Yes, Puerto Rican; Yes, Cuban; Yes, other Spanish/Hispanic.”  The Hispanic origin question was separate from and followed the question asking respondents their race.  

Interestingly, 40 percent of self-identified Hispanics indicated that they belonged to “some other race,” an early and clear indication that this racial classification system simply did not apply to them.

There was another change with the 2000 census.  It was the first to allow people to check the boxes of more than one race.  In that census, Hispanics were more than three times likely as non-Hispanics to claim a mixture of “two or more races,” with most specifying “white” plus another race, though 42% identified as “some other race.”  

Results were similar in 2010, but there was a fundamental difference.  For the 2010 census, a new instruction was added immediately preceding the questions on Hispanic origin and race, stating that “For this census, Hispanic origins are not races.”   The results were striking.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center released the results of a study, conducted in collaboration with the Census Bureau, announcing that 2.5 million Hispanics, or approximately 7 percent of the Hispanic population, changed the box they checked from “some other race” in 2000 to “white” in 2010.  Another 1.3 million people switched in the other direction, and over a million people switched from non-Hispanic white to Hispanic white, or the other way around.  

“Do Americans change their race? Yes, millions do,” said study co-author Carolyn A. Liebler, a University of Minnesota sociologist who worked with Census Bureau researchers. “And this varies by group.”   The study prompted some to argue that the study calls into question claims that America is destined to become a “minority-majority” nation, with whites representing less than half the population.  An article in the New York Times declared:

“The data provide new evidence consistent with the theory that Hispanics may assimilate as white Americans, like the Italians or Irish, who were not universally considered to be white. It is particularly significant that the shift toward white identification withstood a decade of debate over immigration and the country’s exploding Hispanic population, which might have been expected to inculcate or reinforce a sense of Hispanic identity, or draw attention to divisions that remain between Hispanics and non-Hispanic white Americans.”

There’s a good argument to be made that many Hispanics will “become white.”  Many Hispanics are, indeed, white in color and phenotype.  Countless other Hispanic immigrants would consider themselves white in their countries of origin.  

Important to consider is that views of race and racial classifications vary greatly between Latin American countries and the United States.  

A general rule is that racial classification in Latin American countries tends to focus on appearance rather than origin as the primary criterion, often based on a skin color continuum, and unlike the United States, where hypodescent or the “one drop rule” has had a long, historical precedent, includes the use of numerous intermediate or mixed-race categories.

However, Latin America is anything but homogenous, and attitudes toward race are no exception. Historically, many Latin American countries adopted nation-building narratives of race mixture, or mestizaje; countries like Argentina and Costa Rica did not.  It’s a subject that sociologists Edward Telles and Tianna Paschel have studied extensively.  They found that in Brazil, for instance, a formation in African culture is central to the national narrative; in Colombia, blackness has been ignored or downplayed, while whiteness has been greatly valued; in the narrative of the Dominican Republic, blacks and African culture have been regarding as “backward and foreign.”  
In 2014, Telles and Paschel found stark differences between racial self-identification and actual, measured skin color in four Latin American countries with sizable black populations: Panama, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Brazil.  On one extreme was Panama where they was a high correlation between having black skin and a black identity; on the other extreme, the Dominican Republic, less than half of the darkest Dominicans identified as black, while the majority identified as “mestizo” or “Indio.”

Mexico, which has a national ideology built on indigenous identity and mestisaje, serves as another case in point.  The primary ethnic distinction recognized in Mexico is that between indigenous people and the rest of the population, which is assumed to be of mixed-race origin.  The boundary between the two is based on differences in language and culture, rather than on ancestry or skin color.  However, as notes sociologist Andrés Villarreal, “despite a state-sponsored and popular ideology that explicitly rejects any further racial or phenotypical distinctions within the majority mestizo population, many Mexicans today express a preference for whiter skin and European features.”  In his research, Villarreal found “profound social stratification by skin color” in Mexico, in that people with darker skin had significantly lower levels of educational attainment and occupational status.

When Latin Americans arrive in the United States, however, they begin to assimilate to the U.S. racial order.  Here, the designation “black” is often reserved for African Americans.  For many, “white,” at least in the United States, is a designation for those they call “Anglos.”  To check the “white” box would be considered an untruth, a betrayal of their Hispanic heritage.

Additionally, there is strong evidence that “becoming white” may not be an option for all Latinos.  Research conducted by sociologists Tanya Golash-Boza and William Darity in 2008, for example, found that Latinos with darker skin or stereotypically Latino features experienced more discrimination in the U.S.  They were also less likely to identify as white.  It’s a process they call “racialized assimilation,” whereby immigrants learn to adapt to the U.S. racial system. In their words:

“[Racialized assimilation] takes into account the overwhelming importance that skin color has in shaping our interactions with others.  Just as our racial status can be used to predict where we live, who we will marry and our life expectancy, how immigrants are racially categorized by others will heavily influence their path of assimilation … Hispanics will become white, others black, and not all are likely to continue to identify as Hispanic.”

Other studies have found that people who are more fluent in English, have higher incomes, and have spent more time in the United States, were more likely to opt out of existing racial identification choices and choose a separate Latino racial category.

Clearly something is wrong with the way we measure race in the U.S.  The good news is that the Census Bureau is considering a combined race and ethnicity question for 2020, in which the Hispanic/Latino/Spanish question would be offered alongside other racial definitions.  It is part of the “most comprehensive effort in history to study race and ethnic categories,” in the words of Census Bureau officials Nicholas Jones and Roberto Ramirez. “Increasingly, Americans are saying they cannot find themselves” on census forms, Jones said

As part of this initiative, The Bureau recently conducted a study which found that when “Hispanic” is not included among the race options, between 56 and 68 percent of Hispanics identify as white; however, when “Hispanic” is included as a racial option, the percentage who identify as white drops to 13.7 percent.   

A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that, for two-thirds of Hispanics, their Hispanic background is “a part of their racial background – not something separate.”

Not surprisingly, a proposed change to the census is not without controversy, and some Latino groups have voiced concern that eliminating the separate question about Hispanic origin would result in a decrease in the number of Hispanics counted by the census.   

Still, the way the census measures race is one thing.  How we experience race is another.  Many scholars, most prominently, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, have proposed that as a result of the “darkening” of the United States, there will be a “reshuffling” of the historic bi-racial, black and white order, resulting in a tri-racial system, a process he calls “Latinization,” since it’s similar to what’s found in many Latin American and Caribbean nations.  

In this tri-racial system, Bonilla-Silva sees “whites” at the top, an intermediary group of “honorary whites” in the middle, and a non-white group or the “collective blacks” at the bottom.  Included in the honorary white group would be most light-skinned Latinos, Japanese-, Korean-, Asian Indian-, and Chinese-Americans, and most Middle Easterners.  At the bottom, the collective black would include blacks, dark-skinned Latinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and maybe Filipinos.

Just how all this plays out remains to be seen, and there are countless other questions that need to be considered?  How will the children born of Hispanic “interracial” marriages identify themselves?  How will Hispanics come to be viewed as immigration from Asia exceeds that from Latin America?  And how will the upcoming presidential election, and its inflammatory rhetoric, impact Hispanic self-perception?

One thing is certain.  Hispanic identity is as strong – if not stronger – than it has ever been.  I think it’s fair to say that Hispanics won’t be dissolving into white (or black) America anytime soon.  And with each new generation becoming more and more tolerant of diversity, the future, at least in the long term bodes well.


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