The Future of White People


Writing for Reuters, Reihan Salam has an excellent take on the evolution of Hispanic identity. He doesn’t try to relate this with the current push for immigration reform, but it’s useful to consider in the broader context of American politics. Here’s the key passage:

The Census Bureau relies on individuals to self-identify with a given ethnic category. We now know, however, that many individuals who could identify as Hispanic, by virtue of a parent or grandparent born in a Spanish-speaking country, choose not to do so. In recent years, Brian Duncan, an economist at the University of Colorado Denver, and Stephen Trejo, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin, have been studying this “ethnic attrition rate” among U.S. immigrants and their descendants. And their findings suggest that while a given generation of Americans might identify as Hispanic, there is a decent chance that their children will not.

This squares with what I found last year, in my piece for The American Prospect magazine on potential demographic paths for the United States. Hispanics have one of the highest rates of intermarriage in the country, and are on a general path of upward mobility. In other words, they have all the hallmarks of a group moving towards assimilation. Salam highlights this: “Almost 80 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans have no more than two grandparents born in Mexico or Puerto Rico respectively,” he writes, “The same is true of 90 percent of third-generation Americans of Cuban, Dominican, Chinese, and Filipino ancestry.” By the time you reach the third-generation of Latino and Asian Americans, only a small minority identify primarily with their ethnic or national background.

This isn’t an unusual trajectory—Italian immigrants and their descendants followed it, as did Irish immigrants and other European immigrants. For those groups, their national and cultural distinctions fell away until—by and large—they were just “white.” Assimilation had cleansed “Italian-ness” and “Irish-ness” of its stigma, giving Irish and Italian Americans a chance to participate in the full range of national life.

Pundits routinely predict a “majority-minority” America, on account of large waves of Latino and Asian American immigration. But that depends on the emergence of a durable Latino and Asian identity. There are signs of it happening—the partial result of right-wing nativism and anti-immigrant policies—but it’s no guarantee. And if it doesn’t, assimilation and high intermarriage rates are likely to give us a repeat of the 20th century—today’s “Hispanics” and “Asians” will be tomorrow’s white people with a different flavor of ethnic last name.