Monday, January 17, 2011

The Latino Vote

Jonathan Chait takes on Jeb Bush, who (in Chait's interpretation) supports Latinos to the extent that they assimilate. 
I don't mean to be oversensitive here, but it really seems as if Bush is arguing that republicans should embrace Latino immigration because Latinos are becoming less Latino and more white. Is that really a good political sales pitch?
Answer? Yes!

I agree with those who speculate that, contrary to those who argue that the United States will soon become a majority-minority nation, what's more likely is that Latinos will over time be re-coded as "white," just as the Irish and the Jews and other "minorities" were in the past. 

If you're the Republicans, it makes no sense at all to get into a bidding war with Democrats over the loyalties of minorities-as-minorities.  You can't win, and you'll annoy other groups within your coalition.  However, you certainly can try to appeal to those who are in those groups and at least open to voting for the GOP.  It's true that done poorly, at its ugliest, this can wind up becoming an advertisement for those willing to simply turn their back on the group. But at its best, while still highly problematic (because it still implies exclusion of some others), allowing people to be white encouraging integration and being open to new groups is almost certainly better than the alternative. Both as an electoral strategy, and (at least in my opinion) ethically.


  1. Makes sense. But is your answer "yes, this is really a good political sales pitch" or "yes, this is the best sales pitch available to Republicans"? Is that a meaningful distinction?

    Also - I'm almost sure your prediction about racial/ethnic coding is correct, and I suspect the same dynamic will also apply to South and East Asians. The extent to which groups like the Irish were quite literally not considered to be white is underappreciated. (So stuff like that Atlantic cover story on "The End of White America" is a little silly, or at least way overstated.)

    But to be more precise, what will probably happen is that *some* Latinos will over time be recoded as white. The group to which we now refer as "Latino" is more diverse in origin/background/experience than those Irish immigrants were, after all. I'm not really sure what the precise outlines of that process, or its political implications, will be, but it'll be interesting to watch.

  2. I have to admit to being unsure on this one.

    I am a product of my sociologicial upbringing. So, for me, in my 30s, I have trouble understanding the idea that white ethnics were "not white." This doesn't mean that I don't accept that it was true; it just means that I can't quite wrap my head around it.

    Similarly, the understanding of race that I've been brought up with is what I know, so I have trouble imagining another. I also, for what it's worth, cannot understand how a computer could be so scary to my parents. I can appreciate and adapt to different realities for different people, but I have to admit that I have real trouble imagining the world changing from the one I have always known.

  3. I definitely agree with the concept of Latinos being re-coded as "white" over a long enough period, but I think there's a few really big important differences between the Latino population and the "pre-white" Irish and Jews.

    There are way, way more Latinos coming to America than there were of any of the former minority groups that came here in the 1800s and 1900s. And, maybe even more importantly, we share a border and a land mass with the Latino homelands.

    Assimilation is happening, but I sense that "white" is changing as much as "Latino" is changing. If my partner (who is Latina) and I have children, and we raise them here in California (with these bilingual schools and culture), they will likely be much more Latino than what I consider white.

    Do you think the (white, older) Republican base will ever be comfortable with this "mutual assimilation?"

    For that matter, what do you think the white Democratic base of the Midwest will do when they realize that whiteness is being "Latino-ized," and that their political party is aiding that process?

  4. I agree that Latinos will eventually be re-coded as "white" (as for how the current "whites" will take it, we can look at history as a guide- the prejudiced whites of the Democratic Party in the 40s/50s/60s were able to coexist with the new urban "white ethnics" just fine. The nature of an assimilation process is that, y'know, everyone assimilates).

    My question is, are blacks ever going to assimilate to that extent? Clearly, they'll never be "white", but I mean, will such a classification ever not matter? Kinda depressing if not, I guess.

  5. @Colby

    I could imagine a time when biracial African Americans like Obama are regarded as "white."

    What makes Latinos a complicated case is that they, like Jews, are not really a single race, and despite the current convention of describing Latinos as a nonwhite group, a large portion of Latinos would be identified as white if the average American saw them on the street.

    When I worked for the census last year, we had to ask each respondent whether they were Latino/Hispanic. But we were not allowed to accept "Latino" as an answer to the question of what race they were. We had to explain that the census does not consider Latino a race.

  6. Fascinating thread and great comments. Just a couple of responses:

    @Anonymous: This is one of the reasons I enjoy reading history. It helps me imagine a time and a worldview different than my own. It really is interesting to see the differences (and similarities!) in previous waves of immigration and what's happened since.

    @Brendan Garbee: It's true that in absolute numbers there are more Latino immigrants now than there were, say, Eastern and Southern European immigrants 100 years ago; but in a relative sense (i.e., as percentage of population), that immigrant wave was much larger than the one we've had over the past generation.

    @Colby: Great question. One way of thinking about the Anglo-American democratic worldview is that it has always (or at least for the past few centuries) depended on the existence of an underclass. In 17th century Britain the underclass was Irish. In fact, some of the early English explorers/colonists in what became the United States write about the Abenakis, for example, by describing their similarities to the Irish (uncivilized, painted, superstitious, etc.).

    In the 18th and 19th centuries (and continuing into the 20th century), non-English European immigrants had to fight (many times, literally) to define themselves as "white" because it was clear to them that to be "black" was to be caught on the wrong side of the dividing line in this new (to them) land. It's an open question what will happen in the 21st century.

    @Kylopod: The census is one interesting mirror for race (and ethnicity, and culture) in the US. The census has tracked "race" since its inception in 1790, but its definitions of "race" have shifted over time to reflect (imperfectly) the society's self-understanding. I imagine that will continue.

    Finally, solely as a matter of pragmatic politics, I think Jonathan is right: Jeb Bush is pointing the way out for the Republican Party from their self-inflicted dead end of becoming, in effect, the party of white people who are uncomfortable with non-white people wielding power.

  7. The census does shift, but it doesn't always match the current, common understanding of race. To a lot of Americans, and to the media certainly, "Latino" is a racial category. The census does not agree, regarding it as separate from and independent of race. The manual given to enumerators defines all people of Middle Eastern descent as white, yet it's common in modern discourse to talk about Arabs as a nonwhite group.


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