Thanks to El Donald, about whose witless buffoonery I wrote about here, immigration is back at the forefront of American politics and the minds of our chattering classes. While his comments were simian, boorish and coarse, they were helpful in a way. They removed any pretense of talking about “just” illegal immigrants or “just” criminals. Let’s call it like it is. When, in America, we’re talking about immigration, we’re talking about Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans. It’s exhausting to try and tease it out of various nativists I know.
While we can talk about the wider phenomenon of assimilation and Hispanics in the US (something I am preparing over at CCLR), there is an interesting sub-discussion that popped up briefly at Slate, the New York Times and in Latino/Hispanic blogosphere. Are Hispanics becoming white? That is, will eventually Hispanics assimilate to the point where our Latinidad – Hispanic/Latino identity – is just one part of our overall general American, presumably white civic/cultural identity, the way JFK was Irish or Washington was English? Or will we forever remain The Other in an Anglo political-linguistic-cultural background?
I’m going to go with the former. Now admittedly, I may be a bit biased. In fact you may be confused by now. In the title I use the first person plural. Now your eyes are darting back to my picture on the right hand side of this blog. “Homeboy’s white,” you think. You would not be wrong. Hell, my nickname as a child in my family was güero, which literally means whitey. My father’s family is 100% from northern and central Mexico (Chihuahua and San Luis Potosi) and arrived in the United States over a course of decades finally fully immigrating in the 1930s. My father’s family is a typical mestizo Mexican family with a mix of European, indigenous (Mexica, Tarahumara, Yucatec Maya, Yaqui), though being from northern Mexico, they were somewhat lighter skinned than the average Mexican national today due to later European immigration to Chihuahua, primarily from German Irish and Jewish communities, all of which are represented in my father’s background (for the record, my mom’s side is pretty typical colonial/Ellis Island stock). Furthermore it’s not uncommon to find white Latin Americans in basically in every country south of the Rio Grande (though it tends to be less common in countries deeper into the Amazonian Basin/Andean Highlands).
Hence my bias. I feel very comfortable within the wider European-American cultural structure. English is my first language and the language of my home. I grew up in a fairly conservative Protestant home. I grew up being raised with a historical memory of German, Irish and colonial American heritage. My name is fairly Anglo. No one looks at me and seems me as any Other in any setting in America. At the same time, I feel Hispanic. And I don’t mean in a Rachel Dolezal way. My family is Mexican, I grew up in a Mexican-dominated neighborhood, I went to a Catholic school with a school body of predominant Hispanic ancestry, and Hispanic culture and identity was always familiar to me. I don’t feel my whiteness is any kind of threat to my Hispanic identity nor vice versa.
So the question is; will the rest of the Hispanic community undergo a similar detente and embrace their old Iberian identity with their new American WASP home?
Now once I state this sentiment, two very interesting, diametrically opposed camps begin to freak out: Chicano studies majors and white nationalists.
For the latter, the notion that the children or grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants could be the future inheritors of the Western tradition is genuinely terrifying. What good are they, then? Is their “white race” really some delicate snowflake that must be preserved from scary immigrants and dusky heathens if said heathen’s descendants end up quoting Burke and memorizing Ovid? In their minds, not only do they scoff at such an idea, but such a future makes them obsolete. In a world where Hispanics can embrace and fully identify with the Anglo-American tradition and Western civilization, there is no special use for white nationalists/supremacists. A truce was made in the clash of civilizations and no one told them, like a demographic Battle of New Orleans.
For the former, I would say charitably they genuinely are skeptical, given their view of the pervasiveness of racism in America. Uncharitably, I would guess that many would unconsciously fear losing their ability to convincingly grievance-monger. If a large part of how you craft your own personal ethnic identity is that you are not white, then the idea of your kids or grandkids identifying as white probably sucks. Imagining Rudolfo Acuna’s grandkid being half Mexican, one quarter Midwestern white, one quarter Chinese and being a chairman of his local Young Republicans makes me chuckle inwardly.
Why We Won’t Be White
The white nationalist case against this is simply stated and is, to put it kindly, extremely stupid. Basically it can be summed up as, “Well they ain’t white, look how dark they are and the culture/emphasis of cultural values is so different from orderly WASP culture.” (As a sidenote; are any of these trailer dwellers or angry fedora’d trolls really doing their part? What have they done for Western civilization any day soon? Writing a new translation of Beowulf are we? In between your KFC run or changing your Stormfront signature? If any of these “White” heroes that you claim to uphold and love so much could see you, they’d likely just quit and kill themselves out of pure despair.)
I guess these KKK nostalgists (white knights before it was cool), forgot how “White” nations like Iceland or England clearly lost their national identity by bringing in Celtic slaves or through the Norman invasion. I mean it’s obvious that culturally-linguistically different peoples with different emphases of values could never meld into a new people that still held their old identity right? Clearly the Nordic identity of Iceland or Anglo-Saxon identity of England has been lost to us forever. What a shame.
The more intellectually serious case comes from the Chicano studies majors and their fellow travelers. The case goes like this.
1. The notion is inherently offensive. Julio Varela over at Latino Rebels put it this way;
Following this logic, think about it: white = racist against Blacks, Hispanics could become the next whites, so therefore Hispanic = white, which means that Hispanic = racist against Blacks. Why such a sweeping generalization? Why not just say “will some Hispanics” and move along?
2. We have a really long cultural memory, ergo we won’t forget who we really are.
Latino identity is about pride for who you are and never forgetting where you come from. My family is literally a rainbow of races, but we also have a bond that culturally unites us. It is this bond that keeps growing as Latinos get more and more connected online. The Latinos I know refuse to be boxed into other’s paranoid paradigms.
3. Latinos/Hispanics are a really diverse group of people. Ergo it is really hard to predict what “Latinos” will do since this group consists of brown skinned Bolivian indigenous people and lighter skinned criollos from Mexico City. I mean does anyone look at Ted Cruz and Edward James Olmos and go, “Yeah the same guy”? Gabriel Arana makes this point;
[T]he “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. …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.
4. Whiteness discriminates against Latinos, ergo Latinos cannot be white.
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.)
On its face this case looks a bit weak to me. There two major reasons why.
Why (Most) Latinos Will (Probably) Become White
1. It’s Happened Before. If anything being white is a pretty flexible category that has adopted and absorbed a host of people who, 20 years before their arrival, would have been horrifying to most “white” Americans. While there are a host of cases that highlight a gradual whitening of some previously castigated groups (ex. Irish Protestants, Poles, Germans, Eastern Europeans), there are two big cases that come to mind.
Case A: The Irish.
Ah I can see the rolled eyes now. Every white guy’s claim to oppression is that their grandmother was 1/6th Irish. Dylan Moran has a great bit on how to respond to Americans who claim to be Irish in Ireland and ask strangers if they knew their grandmum since she was an O’Flaherty. (Answer: Yes, yes I did. But then again everybody did.) However it is in fact true. The Irish were seen outside the identity of being white and were functionally the Latinos of their day; foreign, strange, deviant Catholics. They were constantly portrayed as illiterate, ignorant cavemen, complete with jutting chin and sweeping brow.
Even Arana brings up the scholarship of Ignatiev;
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.
But, you say, the Irish were in America since the beginning, and the arrival of Irish Protestants softened the way for the Irish Catholic wave of the mid-19th century. Ok sure.
Case B: The Italians.
The case of the Italians is extremely interesting due to the fact that they too were extremely regionally diverse. At the time of their arrival in the US, the notion of being “Italian” was new to the point of ridicule. Most identified as Roman, Florentine, Sardinian, Sicilian and even furthermore by their specific city or village. Even after unification there are deep cultural, linguistic, even genetic differences between northern and southern Italians.
If the Irish were seen as outsiders, Italians have been seen as more so. Unlike the Irish there was no Andrew Jackson/JFK moment of being officially accepted into the cultural mainstream, though I guess Guiliani is the closest they have. There was no sizable pre-Revolution Italian population in America to ease the transition of later migrants. Cartoons and editorials calling for mass extermination of violent indolent southern Europeans were common.
And yet Italians have now entered the American mainstream. There can be little doubt that James Gandolfini or Al Pacino are seen today as some stranger Other to be held at arm’s length. An Italian surname won’t get you looks, nor will an Italian flag generate outrage (unless some Fontana city councilwoman thinks it’s a Mexican flag by accident of course). Not only did Calabrese, Sicilians, Neopolitans, Romans, Venetians and Milanese coalesce into a pan-Italian identity in America (and identity which escaped them in Italy itself) but also slowly merged into the wider American mainstream. In fact the way in which people, usually soft white nationalists of sorts, claim that Italian immigration was good but today Mexican immigration is bad due to the fact that Italians were culturally closer to the original WASPs (an idea utterly laughable to said WASPs actually living then) shows how complete this process has become.
Some could even cite Jewish immigration to the United States, however I know less about this and don’t wish to make pronouncements about something I know less about (however interested in it I am). Also I am not sure if being white is mutually exclusive with being discriminated against via antisemitism. So I’m going to politely skip over this entire debate. But that does lead me to my second main point.
2. It’s Happening Now
When you look at major trends of Hispanic immigrants and their descendants in the US, most major trends point towards a gradual acceptance within the wider European-American identity.
Point A: Intermarriage rates.
This is where I point to my own family’s experience and laugh. My dad has five siblings. All but one married white people. Of the 8 grand-children only one of us is “full Latino” (my cousin Olivia who is half Honduran and half Mexican). All of us speak English natively and most of us have a variety of degrees of fluency with Spanish, none of which reach native fluency.
Pew has some great research on this trend of interracial/inter-ethnic marriage. All of which poses big problems for the “Siempre Latina, nunca blanca” crowd.
- 15% of new marriages are interracial.
- Only 11% say this trend of increasing intermarriage is for the worst.
- A whopping 25% of Hispanic newlyweds marry someone outside their group. (More anecdotes, I married a half Japanese/half white girl from Hawaii, my brother married a white girl with some Puerto Rican ancestry)
- 43% of all interracial/inter-ethnic marriages are between whites and Hispanics.
- While only 14% of foreign born Hispanics are married to someone outside their group, this number jumps to 36% once born in the US.
- An astonishing 80% of third generation Hispanics marry someone outside their group.
Point B: Self identification
This is also interesting. Pew’s other research shows interesting trends when it comes to identification.
- 72% say they have been successful in America, either as successful or more successful than other groups. Only 22% say they have not been successful in America.
- 47% of Hispanics say they are “typical Americans” but that number jumps to 66% once born in the United States.
In addition, as cited by Arana, the identifier as Hispanic over time tends to be less important over time as Hispanic ancestry diminishes, which seems fairly natural, although admittedly I feel a pang of nostalgia at the idea of my son or daughter not feeling the same connection I do to Mexican/Hispanic culture and identity as I do and finding it an interesting piece of him/her but not all that important (like me and my family’s partial German ancestry).
Lastly, it seems the shift is already happening. Both the Varela piece and Arana’s piece cite the interesting trends with the Census, which admittedly tends to under count Latinos. While 1.2 million switched their identification from Hispanic-white to Hispanic-other, an additional 2.5 million went to Hispanic-white. This seems to imply an active ongoing switch within a generation. I agree with Varela that it is a bit too soon to garner much from these specific numbers, but unlike him I am not too ready to attribute it to simple confusion, which seems a bit patronizing to me personally.
All in all, it seems that, over time, most (though likely not all) Hispanics will probably partially assimilate into the European-American identity and certainly fully assimilate into the American cultural mainstream. Spanish and Mexican historical settlement on the Southeast and the fact that an overwhelming majority of Hispanics hope that Spanish remains alive (95%) in America, means that they will likely remain ethnically distinct, but in a manner that white ethnics remain distinct from their neighbors. Slate and the New York Times weren’t the first to imagine this. As early as 1998, Lind was discussing the possibility of our “beige majority”.
On the whole I think this will be a positive development for two main reasons;
- For starters, I think it will help build empathy and cultural ties to each other. I want rarefied Anglo-Southerners and blue blooded WASPs to be able to empathize with the Mexican migrant story or the Cuban refugee story not in the abstract but because it is their story. At the same time I think the particular branch of western civilization built here is valuable. The idea of losing a personal, cultural attachment to the culture of the Founders, our Anglo-European legal heritage and the broader western civilization would be, to me, a tragedy. I don’t wish my great-grandchildren to lose this any more than I wish for my children to feel unattached to Villasenor, Marquez, or Cervantes.
- Being able to culturally feel attached to each other is important, not just for romantic reasons but also for civic. While too many have distorted Putnam’s research in Bowling Alone for their own ends, his research on declining civic trust or participation due to not seeing your neighbors as peers is a dire warning. While I think conservatives throw the term “Balkanization” around too much, a cultural convergence could be really helpful for American civic society.
I think John Hector St. John (originally Jean Hector St. John de Crèvecœur) put it best in his Letters from an American Farmer,
Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men…I could point to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch and whose son married a French woman…He is an American. What is the American? This new man? [T]hat strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country.
On a side note; I use the term “Hispanic” in the title and use the term interchangeably with the term Latino. Pew also has some interesting research on whether people prefer one term or the other. Most have no preference, except in Texas where the clear majority prefer Hispanic, but when people do prefer one or the other, Hispanic does tend to win over Latino. My dad’s family is from Texas, the term Hispanic to me brings up a broader Hispano, Ibero-American identity which I feel connected to, ergo I use it primarily. I won’t really go into the whole, “We’re not Hispanic/Latino, we’re [Fill in the X]” argument which comes primarily from Chicano nationalists who style themselves some kind of indigenous revolutionaries. Seeing this argument from people with last names hailing from Spain, speaking/writing in English and struggling to maintain fluency in another European language self-refutes its profound idiocy. If you don’t like these terms and wish to divorce yourself from your Spanish heritage, that’s fine (though a bit sad in my opinion) but wishing to force that on a disinterested community is ridiculous. Go home, have a drink, y no te congojes.
Also understand that I use interchangeably the terms “white” and “European”. I do realize these are not always mutually inclusive in how they are used in whiteness studies programs. I tend to be speaking of the latter when I use both, not Ignatiev’s definition of access to privilege, though I doubt Ted Cruz or Rubio will be pulled over any day soon (though apparently Marco’s wife will).
Some sources for those interested in the wider discussion
- Letters from an American Farmer by John Hector St. John
- Hispanic vs. Latino, Pew Research Center, 2013.
- Julio Varela’s piece on it
- Gabriel Arana’s piece on it
- Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America by Thomas G. West
- Pew Social Trends on Intermarriage
- “The Complexity of Immigrant Generations: Implications for Assessing the Socioeconomic Integration of Hispanics and Asians,” by Brian Duncan and Stephen J. Trejo, Center for Research and Analysis on Migration, 2012.
- Slate’s piece on it
- Reihan Salam on our future beige majority
- Michael Lind on the same subject