Demographics Aren’t Destined

Last June, the Census reported the white-alone population to have declined by .2% in absolute terms between July 2016 and July 2017. Though it may seem trivial, this factoid has immense significance to those on opposing sides of the culture wars, both of which have taken it to herald the decline of white political significance and the rise of a more diverse, and therefore liberal, electorate.

Frankly, there’s too much there to talk about in one blog post. Instead, I’d like to address an issue that’s bugged me for a long time:

In projection after projection showing a minority-white America, Hispanic members of each racial category are separated and lumped into their own group, despite the racial diversity of Latin America. This is significant because the rising tide of American diversity is mainly the result of a four-decade wave of immigration from Latin America and the high fertility rate of their descendants (though both forces have recently calmed). In 1960, 3.5% of the country identified as Hispanic or Latino. Nearly 60 years later, that figure has risen to 18%, with expectations that a quarter of the country will identify as Hispanic by 2065.

But disaggregating Hispanics from racial categories is inconsistent, not just with official Census convention—which designates Hispanic/Latino an ethnicity, a variable mutually independent from race—but also with evidence that suggests many Hispanics are beginning to assimilate more wholly into the white population.

This isn’t a (just) pedantic rant about Census data. I think there’s a solid argument to be made that we’re actually in the middle of an expansion, rather than contraction, of American whiteness.

Take, for starters, that a slim majority of American Hispanics already identify as white, at least when asked about their race on the Census. This doesn’t seem like a vestige of a more racially animose time. Per the 2010 Census, 53% of US Hispanics describe themselves as “white alone,” up from 48% in 2000.

US Hisp Race
Between 2000 and 2010, the share of US Hispanics identifying as white alone increased, while the proportion selecting “some other race” when asked to identify decreased.

Secondly, Hispanic identity seems to fade the further removed from immigration a one is. According the Pew Center’s 2015 National Survey of Latinos, all but 3% of foreign-born Americans with Hispanic ancestry identify as Hispanic or Latino. In the second generation, that share increases only slightly, to 8%. But by the third and fourth generations, it climbs rapidly, to 23% and 50%, respectively. This is truer among younger cohorts.

All told, 11% of US adults with Hispanic ancestry do not identify as such. Because immigration has been replaced by native births as the main driver of US Hispanic population growth in the last few decades, it’s not unreasonable to expect this fraction of “non-Hispanics” to grow.

Hisp growth
Source: Based on Pew Research Center tabulations, Pew Research Center historical projections (Passel and Cohn, 2008).

Also worth considering are Hispanics’ growing geographical dispersion and high rate of intermarriage, especially among younger generations. Twenty-eight percent of 18- to 35-year-old US Hispanics are married to non-Hispanics. Again, this trend grows stronger the longer one’s family has been in the United States: nearly 60% of third-generation US Hispanics ages 18 to 35 are married to someone who isn’t Hispanic. Moving out of the city and marrying extra-ethnically seem, admittedly conjecturally, indicative of cultural assimilation.

It seems like Hispanics are following the arc of other (European and Levantine) immigrant groups who were once, and in some cases still are, considered outside the bounds of conventional whiteness. All of this is to say, I’m skeptical that the way Hispanics view themselves in 2018 is the way they will in 2050—especially as they become more enmeshed in mainstream American society.

Of course, this is just a prediction I’m making in my living room. I don’t have a crystal ball or any special insight into the minds of the American public. I’m going to end with some reasons things might not go as I imagine:

The 101 reason would probably be “politics,” with which race seems to have a bicausal relationship in America. It’s not hard to imagine the Republican party alienating Hispanics with nativism while selling themselves, intentionally or otherwise, as the party of White America. Similarly, Democrats’ ability to court Hispanics relies to some degree on the extent to which they feel shut out from the cultural and political mainstream. Both could push Hispanics to think of themselves as non-white more frequently.

Relatedly, the Office of Management and Budget could affect Hispanics’ racial identities through bureaucratic means. A few years ago, there was talk of combining the race and ethnicity questions, with “Hispanic” offered as a choice alongside Asian, black, white, etc. As I noted at the time, this might bring the Census questions more in line with the way Americans think about race today—but it would also be putting a thumb on the scales. There’s really no neutral position for the Census to take in this matter.

Anecdotally and finally, it also seems like the psychic benefits of whiteness have waned a lot over the last few decades—especially as regards low-status whites. Part of this owes to good news: cultural progress on matters of race, which has begun to erode the relatively elevated status enjoyed by whites at the expense of minorities. Other explanations are more sinister and reflect anomic decay in the white population: rising rates of suicide, drug overdoses, and voluntary unemployment. For one reason or another, whiteness no longer feels as enviable a club as it probably did in the 20th century when Italians, Jews, and other so-called “white ethnics” made the conscious effort to join its ranks.

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