Whiteness . . .
C O N T E N T S
* "A Response to Linda Martín Alcoff's 'Latinos and the Category of Whiteness'" By Manuel Pastor (April 10, 2016)
* "Reply to Manuel Pastor" by Linda Martín Alcoff (April 10, 2016)
A Response to
Linda Martín Alcoff's
"Latinos and the
Category of Whiteness"
By Manuel Pastor
The NiLP Report (April 10, 2016)
recent NiLP Report Guest Commentary
on Latinos and U.S. racial categories, Linda Martín Alcoff is just one of many observers who have made much ado about the seven percentage point increase in the percent of Latinos marking white on the Census between 2000 and 2010. Indeed, she uses this shift as a sort of data platform to make an argument that Latino identification as white may be motivated by the colorism of Latin American societies as well as the appeal of whiteness in the U.S. for any immigrant.
There are many interesting insights in the piece. But just to be clear: the jump in white identification isn't really evident from the Census statistics and evidence suggests that Latino immigrants may actually reject whiteness the longer they're here.
I first tried to flag the data issue when Nate Cohn of the
New York Times
that more Hispanics were identifying as white. The piece - which even included a cute graphic in which a (presumably Latino) man steps from one square to another, miraculously becomes white, and then rises up to the sky - suggested that this may be "new evidence consistent with the theory that Hispanics may assimilate as white Americans, like the Italians or Irish...."
In response, I wrote a
Huffington Post piece
suggesting that before making too much of the "new evidence," we consider a simpler hypothesis: the question had changed.
In general, the Census has asked respondents two general questions: First, are you Hispanic? And second, what race are you? (In 1980 and 1990, the order of the questions were reversed but we're focused here on 2000 and 2010). There's also a specific admonition to the respondent to answer both the questions being asked.
But what was different in 2010 from 2000 was the inclusion of a line - in bold type - saying, "For this census, Hispanic origins are not races."
The addition of that phrase could have pushed Latinos into skipping the "other" category and choosing one of the predefined groups - sort of like whitening through reworking the data rather than the reality. That was, in fact, part of the motivation: The Census wanted what it thought would be a more accurate race count. But could a simple bolded - albeit nuanced - statement have really made such a large difference?
One way to examine the issue is to look at American Community Survey (ACS), the monthly sample administered by the Census. The ACS has taken the place of what used to be called the long-form census, an instrument that collected in-depth socioeconomic data every decade. There, the question switch - that is, the addition of the bolded message about racial identification - occurred in 2008.
So how did the answers in the 2008 ACS compare with those in 2007? As it turns out, the share of Latinos identifying as white in the ACS went up by about 8.5 percentage points. It's hard to think of anything happening that year that would have driven up whiteness quite that quickly - except for the change in the question.
More direct evidence comes from an
run by the Census Bureau in the run-up to the 2010 Census. When the Bureau administered the 2000 and 2010 surveys side by side, there was an increase in 9.5 percentage points in the share of Latinos marking white when you used the new form of the question.
So year-over-year or side-by-side, the results shift when the question changes and the average over the two methods would be a nine percentage point gain in whiteness. In which case, the seven percent shift in the full Census returns between 2000 and 2010 is quite understandable - and might actually suggest that less Latinos are marking white (or would be, if we'd stuck with the old question).
The basic point: the 2010 Census response is the wrong data marker to make arguments about shifts in racial identification.
To be fair, Martín Alcoff and others may be on to something: tracking from when the question switched in 2008 till the most recent 2014 ACS survey, the share of Latinos marking white has risen by a bit over three and half percentage points. So perhaps Latino racial identification is changing - although it is also the case that the ACS which is perceived as more voluntary may actually be undersampling many Latinos, particularly immigrants, who are less likely to mark white.
Wait. Did I really say that? Isn't the traditional story, one Martín Alcoff echoes, that immigrants are initially sort of confused by the U.S. racial scheme then figure out that identifying as white might be a better strategic choice?
That has indeed been the standard tale. But in work I've done with my colleague,
, we sought to look at the impact of space and time on Latino racial identification. Specifically, we wanted to see whether living in a suburb had a "whitening" effect; in fact, the paper was titled "
Where in the World Is Juan - and What Color is He?
But because housing location is associated with income and education, we utilized multivariate logistic regression to try to control for the impacts of all the variables at the same time (we were also careful to use data only from the years after the questions changed - no mixing and match for us!).
Suburban location was indeed associated with Latinos identifying as white, and this was on top of factors that also pushed in that direction, such as age, income, education, and English ability. But our most novel result may have involved the recency of migration: the longer an immigrant had been in America (controlling for all the other factors), the less likely s/he was likely to think of themselves as white.
Which actually kind of makes sense if you think about Arizona, Georgia, and even Donald Trump: there are some pretty strong signals being sent about the non-whiteness of Latinos and that ought to be reflected in how people mark forms once they start paying full attention to the welcoming (or rather un-welcoming) attitude of the society to which they just moved.
Martín Alcoff concludes her piece by suggesting that U.S. Latinos need to reject "anti-Blackness." On this, I'm totally in agreement: Latinos should recognize the colorism of Latin American and the virulent anti-Black nature of the U.S., actively oppose racism in all its many forms, and work to build alliances with African Americans and other people of color. Indeed, this has been a primary political commitment of mine, particularly in the multiethnic stew that is Los Angeles.
But let's just build this new common ground based on what the data actually suggest about the racial identification of Latinos: that while there are certainly challenges and tensions, there are also solid reasons to believe that Latinos may be less tempted by whiteness than many think and thus more amenable to the sort of coalition politics that many of us favor.
is Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California where he also serves as Director of USC's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) and co-Director of USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII). He is the co-author most recently of
Just Growth: Prosperity and Inclusion in America's Metropolitan Regions
Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America's Future
(2010). He can be reached at
by Linda Martin Alcoff
The NiLP Report (April 10, 2016)
I want to thank Manuel Pastore for sharing this important information about Latinos and the U.S. census. He makes at least two important points: that when the wording of questions is changed the meaning of the answers has to be interpreted differently, and that Latino immigrants are less likely to describe themselves as white the longer they are in the U.S.
As a philosopher, I generally rely on the statistics gathered from my betters in the social sciences who know their way around "multivariate logistic regressions" much better than I do. But the central methodological points he makes should be clear to all: changing the wording of questions even slightly can change the meaning of answers; changing the sample (e.g. from urban to suburban) can affect survey results; and distinguishing between diverse Latino groups---such as those who just arrived or those who have been in the U.S. for a long time---may also have an effect on the responses given, perhaps explaining some of the changes in the responses we observe.
Pastor joins with others in the Latino community who have expressed concern about the commonly repeated narrative that Latinos are increasingly defining ourselves as white, which is related to the claim some make that Latinos actually
are becoming white. This claim is usually associated with the idea that whiteness is expanding today to include, some say, Latinos, Asian Americans, Arab Americans and others.
The idea that whiteness is expanding seems simply to extend a historical trend witnessed throughout the 20th century. The Irish and southern Europeans, who were initially not classified or treated as white, eventually became members of the club. Some such "ethnic whites" continued to experience ethnic prejudice, yet by the 1950s they were no longer subject to labor discrimination or other policies that enforced racial hierarchies.
The idea that whiteness is now expanding to include Latinos among others requires, however, that it cross the color line, so to speak, to incorporate those who not only have ethnic differences but also racial or racialized differences. While it is true that the Irish were once thought to be non-white, they were always European. Members of the British parliament in the 17th century voiced concern about a 'domino effect' of treating Irish indentured labor as little better than slaves: much better, they thought, to create a demarcation further down the line from where they perceived themselves to be. Thus, northern Europeans had a reason to allow the rest of Europe into the club. The question is, do they have any reason today to allow non-Europeans into the club?
One way to determine whether or not Latinos, or other groups, are now "honorary" whites is to see how they are treated. In terms of racism, wage levels, and the ability to immigrate, there are still significant differences. Candidates for public office express anti-Latino racism and their ratings go up, race-based wage and wealth differentials stagnate, and asylum seekers fleeing violence are imprisoned in detention centers where they have even less rights that those in the regular prison system.
Moreover, the idea of Europe, and European lineage, as culturally superior to the rest of the world continues to resonate in our school curricula and museum content, and it informs too much foreign policy. Explicit claims about white supremacy may be waning among the young, but European supremacy is rarely challenged. Latinos are thought to come from pre-modern cultures with old-fashioned religions whose economic and political woes are the result of their inadequate cultures, not global capital or the legacy of colonialism. In actual fact, some Latin American countries weathered the 2008 global financial crisis quite well, but the United States would never imagine itself as having something to learn from its southern neighbors.
So before we assume that Latinos are becoming white, we need to consider what facts there are to support such a claim. And we should recognize that other European ethnicities that made it into the whiteness club did not have to challenge European supremacy to do so.
It would make sense that some Latino immigrants to the U.S. may initially self-identify as white but later come to view this as mistaken, as Pastor's findings suggest. Given that color often trumps lineage in many places in Latin America, people with light skin may sincerely understand themselves to be white. But here in the U.S. whiteness means lineage, or where your parents came from, no matter how you look. Sadly it also still carries a baseless claim of cultural superiority.