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The Meaningless of the Term “Latino”

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Jamelle Bouie has an excellent article arguing that progressives’ dreams of a demographic majority with the rise of the Latino population is a chimera. Progressives have a vision that endless Republican racism will combine with the growth of people from Latin America to propel a rejuvenated Democratic Party into a period of dominance. That’s pretty problematic, as Jamelle shows. There’s no question that the majority of peoples from Latin America will remain Democrats for the time being, but the future is murky. First, there are plenty of Latinos who are already Republican or who might be if the current iteration of the Republican Party wasn’t dominated by mouth-breathing white supremacists. Second, there’s no guarantee that Republicans will continue to be the white man’s party three and four decades down the line, although this is possible. The most likely possibility is that certain sections of the Latino population will simply become white and accepted into the a modified Republican narrative about race, class, and America.

This has profound implications. If whites are the “mainstream” of American life, with overwhelming representation in politics, business, and culture, then intermarriage with Latinos and Asians has the potential to bring those groups into the mainstream as well. Put another way, the wildly popular comedian Louis C.K. is understood to be white, even though his father and grandfather are Mexican and his first language is Spanish. More important, his children will be perceived as white, despite their Latino heritage. In effect, C.K. and others like him are expanding the definition of “white.”

To Pantoja, this bears a strong resemblance to the pattern of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the U.S. saw massive immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. “Latinos seem to be on a similar trajectory as Italians,” he says. “At the turn of the century, the Italians were seen as a stigmatized minority group that could not be assimilated into the American mainstream.” It was common to describe Italians as “dark,” “swarthy,” and—in language that also has characterized African Americans—prone to crime and poverty. But as Italians rose out of working-class professions and joined a burgeoning middle class, they and other “nonwhite” immigrants assimilated. Eventually, the New Deal, along with unions, service in World War II, and the G.I. Bill, brought Italians fully into American life.

The politics of Italian Americans changed with their shifting status. As the party most identified with immigrants, Democrats gained an early lead with Italian Americans; they formed a key part in Franklin Roosevelt’s victorious coalition and proved crucial to Democratic successes through the 1960s. But as Italians became fully assimilated, and Democrats championed the rights of racial minorities and women’s rights, the balance shifted. By the 1980s, Italians would join most white Americans in voting Republican.

A similar path might emerge for Latinos. Initially outsiders, they form a bond with the political party that most identifies with their concerns. As they move into the mainstream, those concerns become less salient, and their political preferences become identical to those of whites’—less dependent on their racial or ethnic traits than on factors like education, wealth, and geography.

Yes indeed. Many ethnic groups have become “white” over the centuries–Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, etc. Each of these groups was seen as suspicious upon their arrival to the U.S. and found shelter within a more welcoming Democratic Party. Eventually, each became broadly seen as white and at that point, various other factors helped drive them to a greater or lesser extent into the two political parties. There is no reason this won’t happen for broad sections of the Latino population.

And that gets to another issue: that the term “Latino” has almost no value. What do Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans have in common? For that matter, one can ask what Spanish-speaking Mexicans from Durango have in common with Mixtec or Zapotec-speaking Mexicans from Oaxacans, a group that makes a up a major chunk of Mexican migration in some areas of the United States? Not a whole lot, sometimes not even language. It’s really rather insulting; it’s like saying that all the immigrants from eastern and southern Europe in the 1910s were the same thing. And maybe a lot of Americans saw them that way, but we know now that was pretty racist.

Terminology around race is tricky. My understanding of Latino is that it came out of immigrant political activism in the 80s and 90s as a way to get around the more offensive “Hispanic,” although I could be wrong about some of the details. But as the Latin American population has grown, the term has served as an easy way for “whites” to talk about this growing group of immigrants without paying much attention to the particulars. It has covered up the incredible diversity of peoples entering the United States from the south and blocked understanding of how immigration is changing the United States. We’d be better off getting rid of it and instead start talking about Mexican voters and Guatemalan voters and Colombian voters. They aren’t the same now and they certainly won’t be the same when some of them start becoming white and others don’t.

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