The Latino Flight to Whiteness


This is a contribution to Prospect Debate: The Illusion of a Minority-Majority America.

Will the United States have a majority of people of color by the year 2050, as both researchers and the popular press commonly assert? Richard Alba urges skepticism because, he argues, U.S. Census policy overestimates the presence of nonwhites in the American population. As Alba observes, in mixed-race marriages where one parent is white and the other nonwhite, the Census uses a default rule of counting all the children as nonwhite, even though that is not necessarily how the children see themselves.

The impact of Hispanic patterns of intermarriage supports Alba’s words of caution about claims of a new American racial majority of color. By 2011, according to a study by Wendy Wang of the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of Hispanic newlyweds married non-Hispanics. Eighty percent of third-generation Hispanics are the offspring of mixed marriages. The consequences for Hispanic identification are striking. From one generation to the next, the descendants identify less as Hispanic and more as non-Hispanic white in a pattern that economists Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo call “ethnic attrition.” They point out that since the offspring of mixed marriages also tend to have a higher socioeconomic status than Hispanics who are not products of intermarriage, their exit from the Hispanic category depresses the socioeconomic profile of Hispanics. As a group, the descendants of Hispanic immigrants appear to be doing worse than they are.

Ironically, had Alba focused on census patterns of racial identification among those Hispanics choosing one race classification (over 80 percent of Hispanic respondents in the 2010 census), it would have reinforced his reservations about the rise of a nonwhite majority. In a 1997 article in the Journal of Black Studies, sociologists Jonathan Warren and France Twine had already challenged the view that the United States was gravitating toward a white minority population because of evidence that the new immigrant population tends to identify as white. A similar preference for whiteness is present among Hispanics who select a single category as their racial identity. In the 2010 census, the majority of Hispanic respondents, 53 percent, said they are white, a mere 2.5 percent said they are black, and more than 35 percent chose a category other than black or white (some choosing “Hispanic” itself or their national origin as their racial classification). A majority of “single race” Hispanics selected a white racial identity.

The census does not include information about an individual’s physical appearance. But there are surveys that enable us to compare the interviewees’ self-reported race with their complexion as judged by the interviewer. In a survey devoted exclusively to Hispanics, the interviewers coded the respondents on a continuum of Very Light, Light, Medium, Dark, and Very Dark. The vast majority of Hispanics coded as Medium to Very Dark said their race is white. Even among the Dark and Very Dark respondents less than 5 percent said they are black. (For these findings, see William Darity Jr., Jason Dietrich, and Darrick Hamilton, “Bleach in the Rainbow: Latin Ethnicity and Preference for Whiteness,” Transforming Anthropology, 13:2 October 2005 103-109.) The preference for whiteness among Hispanics parallels a flight from blackness.

Moreover, the preference for whiteness predates recent Hispanic migration to the United States. It is a preference fostered in their countries of origin. For example, a much higher proportion of Puerto Ricans on the island identify as white, 80 percent, than Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, 53 percent, in the 2000 census, as Mara Loveman and Jeronimo Muniz show in a 2007 article, “How Puerto Rico Became White,” in the American Sociological Review.

Based upon trends in racial self-classification, one has to be skeptical about the emergence of “majority-minority” America. But whether self-identification as white translates into social identification as white is another matter. A 2015 study by Nicholas Vargas in the DuBois Review indicates that only 6 percent of Hispanics who say they are white also say they believe that they are perceived by others as white. In “From Bi-Racial to Tri-Racial: Towards a New System of Racial Stratification in the USA” a 2004 article in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that the shifting American racial boundaries are producing a provisional space for Hispanics collectively as “honorary whites.”

All this clouds the political implications of America’s changing demography. Hispanics collectively are unlikely to share common cause with black Americans over a common racial identity. As Gabriel Arana has pointed out, white-identified Hispanics are more likely to support the Republican Party than those who choose a nonwhite racial identity. These patterns in Hispanic race classification will become harder to isolate if “Hispanic” is included as one of the race options in 2020, as the Census Bureau may do. Therefore, if a coalition ever forms of Americans “of color,” it will not be on the basis of linked fate or fictive kinship anchored on race. That coalition will have to develop on the basis of common cause around a core set of issues or an ideological move toward a belief in a common heritage of colonial subjugation by non-Hispanic whites.

Americans long have had a peculiar fascination with “mixed-race” status, reflected in particular in  “tragic mulatto” narratives so prominent in American novels and films. The same fascination has been present in Latin America as well; for example, the 1948 Mexican film Angelitos Negros starring the great actor Pedro Infante is precisely that: a “tragic mulatto” story. This fascination leads to a tendency to overstate the importance of growth in the multiracial population and to a corresponding tendency to ignore the pattern of white self-identification among Hispanics. A realistic assessment of America’s future needs to correct both deeply ingrained cultural myths and demographic misjudgments.  

Next: Harold Meyerson, "Yes, But How Will They Vote?"


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