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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Racial Gerrymandering (The Other Type)

Race, however nebulous a concept, is typically thought of as static among individual human beings. And yet, millions of Americans may wake up on Census Day, 2020 as a member of a different race–at least, on paper.

The proposed changes are meant to help align census definitions with the way Americans think about race. It’s an incredibly difficult, if not quixotic, task, due in no small part to the census’ historical ambiguity on the issue.

A little background

Since its inception in 1790, the United States Census has tracked racial data. The federal government uses this data to track health and environmental outcomes across populations, promote equal employment opportunities, to redistrict, and to inform federal policy with regard to civil rights.

Because the decennial census data are used for redistricting purposes and inform race-related social policy, you can count on a lot of advocacy and politics influencing every step of the process.

The Census Bureau collects data in accordance with the guidelines set for it by the Office of Management and Budget. This data is self-reported (though it has only been this way since 1960) and is acknowledged to adhere to social, rather than scientific, definitions.

Here’s what’s happening

A proposal by the Office of Management and Budget suggests creating a new racial category, MENA (Middle East and North Africa), and combining the ethnicity and race questions. Together, both changes could affect the way over 60 million Americans racially identify.

Under current guidelines, people with “origins” in the Middle East and North Africa are considered white. Critics, notably the Arab American Institute, claim this categorization is an inaccurate vestige of anti-Asian immigration law from the 19th century that led Middle Eastern immigrants to advocate for white status. Creating a separate racial category will allow for better data collection and confer upon “MENA-Americans” the same legal protections and privileges granted to other minority groups, they argue.

Hispanics, on the other hand, are not currently considered a race by the census, but rather an ethnicity. In fact, the only two options given to Americans for ethnicity are “Hispanic or Latino” or “Not Hispanic or Latino.” This has meant that Hispanics have been free to self-identify with any race they feel accurately describes them–a choice that has produced some confusion. Given that freedom, a slight but increasing majority of Hispanics have chosen to describe themselves as white (53% in 2010, up from 47.9% in 2000).

screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-6-03-14-pm

But by collapsing the ethnicity and race questions into one general question, the next census may change that.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-3-55-23-pm
Possible 2020 census question for race/Hispanic origin.

Having Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin appear next to other race options may encourage Hispanics who had previously considered themselves white to simply identify as “Hispanic”–after all, Spain is notably absent from the countries listed under “white.” As Mike Gonzalez writes for National Review:

The proposed census form defines “white” as “German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, etc.” For “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish,” the definition is “Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian, etc.”

Now, if you’re a Mexican American who has always considered yourself white because of your Spanish ancestry, you have one choice. You would never check a box designated for persons of German, Irish, or other origins north of the Pyrenees, because that doesn’t describe you. So the only choice you have is Hispanic.

Social definitions of race are neither static nor universal…nor immune to bureaucracy

This is far from the first time bureaucratic lines around race and ethnicity have been redrawn. Different federal policies and amendments thereto have led people to alter their racial and ethnic identities for hundreds of years in America.

The most obvious example would be the term “Hispanic,” which was first officially used in the 1970s. It’s more of a political and bureaucratic convenience than a valid anthropological grouping, and is rarely used outside of the United States. Yet today many Americans celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, listen to “Hispanic music”, and identify as Hispanics.

Another example would be Indian Americans’ historical flirtation with different racial categories. In the early 1900s, there were several court cases in which individual Indian Americans were determined to be white and non-white, depending on the case. In 1930 and 1940, the census listed “Hindu” as a race, but in 1970 Indians were instructed to self-report as “white.”

By 1980, that had changed again and Indian Americans were grouped under “Asian.” However in 1990, 10% of respondents with Indian origins self-identified as “white” and 5% self-reported as “black,” despite being specifically instructed to check “Asian” by the census. Non-Asian identification rose in generations removed from immigration. Among US-born South Asians, the portion that identified as white rose to 25% in 1990.

Allowing greater leeway in racial reporting has also yielded significant demographic changes.

A change to census policy beginning in 1960 allowed respondents to self-report race, rather than require verification from a local enumerator. As a result, the Native American population has since exploded in a way that can not be explained by birth rates or immigration. A 2000 change that allowed respondents to select multiple races furthered this trend.

em_spring15_2_1
Taken from HUD website

Tilting at windmills

The best lesson is that race in America has nothing to do with biology and is as informed by politics as much as it informs them. Racial identities are more idiosyncratic and plastic than we tend to think of them as being. The census doesn’t–and cannot–tell us about the actual genealogical diversity of America; what it actually measures is our collective perception thereof. That perception and the metrics by which we assess it are constantly changing.

The great irony here is that the OMB and the Census Bureau are both causing and reacting to changes in perceptions of racial identity in America! In order to ask questions the way they think respondents want to hear them, they inadvertently place their thumbs on the scale. Even though racial and ethnic data are self-reported, they will always be influenced by the definitions put forth by the OMB.