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Latinos and Whiteness

Two armed American border guards confront a group of immigrants attempting to cross illegally from Mexico into the United States in 1948.

I want to expand on something that came up in this thread from the other day: how whiteness might include Latinos in the future. We know now, thanks to scholars going back to Theodore Allen and greatly expanded up by David Roediger and many others, that whiteness is an invented idea that is also a shapeshifter, constantly changing forms in response to growing power by some ethnic groups defined against other groups, especially African-Americans. Over American history, whiteness has come over time to include the Irish, Jews, and southern and eastern Europeans. Most of this was accomplished by around the end of World War II, when a national whiteness developed encompassing all the European immigrant groups fostered by the fight against the Nazis, the mixing of the American working class as people traveled during the war (both in the military and in wartime production plants) and to protect jobs from being taken by people of color.

So there is no good reason to believe that whiteness is something that will remain static going forward. While I am not fully convinced that the definition of whiteness has actually changed that much in the last 70 years, it could certainly change going forward. Where most people note the change is in the integration of Asian-Americans as “white.” I think this claims needs greater context and hesitation. First, white racist conservatives do in fact complain about all the Asians at places such as Harvard and Yale. Second, most of the Asian-Americans that have become more accepted in many white areas are wealthier than the average immigrant, which can go a long ways toward acceptance on an individual basis. So, sure, the family might be cool with your Japanese-American girlfriend or even boyfriend (although never underestimate the horror of interracial sex with white women in this nation’s pathology), but that doesn’t mean they are seeing the Cambodian neighborhood a mile away as much like them. Third, while the Chinese and Japanese have certainly faced massive discrimination in American history, their destruction of their long-term communities through Chinese exclusion and through the World War II concentration camps that led to the dispersal of Japanese-Americans through the nation after 1945 means that the sort of long-term “threat” that working-class whites feel they face from those groups hasn’t much existed in a long time. I think the case that, say, the Vietnamese or the Hmong are now being coded white is much harder to make because in places such as southern California or Louisiana or Wisconsin where tensions abound around the long-term poverty in these communities, the gangs that develop out of that, and greater tension between them and the white community.

Of course, whiteness could always continue to change and in 2050, there could be no meaningful difference between “white” and “Asian-American.” But the case is often made that whiteness will come to include Latinos and this I find a bit harder to believe. The reason I feel that way is that the makeup of Latino immigrant communities largely includes people who are either Afro-Latino or heavily indigenous. If you look at Ted Cruz, sure, he’s a white guy. By and large, the upper class in most Latin American nations are light-skinned and while the U.S. is pretty unique in its one-drop rule of race (why wasn’t Barack Obama considered our 44th white president?), skin color absolutely matters in these nations, but it exists more on a continuum than an absolute divide. So if our view of Latinos is wealthy Cuban-Americans, yes, Latinos could easily be white. But that’s not who these large majority of these people are. Here’s a list of the 14 largest Latino groups in 2011. It hasn’t changed all that much since. A few notes.

First, 65 percent of the Latinos in the United States are of Mexican origin. The racial diversity within Mexico itself is wide-ranging. Some, especially in the north, tend to be lighter in skin and have lower percentages of indigenous blood. For migrants from Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Chiapas, they are likely to be nearly 100% indigenous. Moreover, while they make up a very large percentage of the Latino migrants, many of them are also in a small number of states, particularly California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. While those populations have certainly expanded in states such as Oregon, Washington, Iowa, North Carolina, and Georgia in the last 15 years, the predominance of them in a few border states means Mexican-Americans make up a huge underclass there. With many of these areas having low African-American populations, Mexicans have become the race that whites define themselves against. Between this and how indigenous so many of these people are, for Mexicans to now be “white” would have to be a redefinition of whiteness that basically included Native Americans and I have a really hard time seeing that happen, especially in the West, where racism toward Native Americans is equal to or greater than that Mexican-Americans suffer.

As for the other populations, they make an even harder case for future inclusion in whiteness. The Salvadorans and Guatemalans are nearly all indigenous. Dominicans are largely of African descent. Cubans and Puerto Ricans are highly mixed, but many of them are of African descent as well. Most of these groups are more regionally important than nationally. But in an area where there are large Colombian populations, for example, such as in northern Rhode Island, they have more in common with African-Americans than “whites,” including skin color and economic status. Afro-Latinos are going to be “black” in American racial coding and already are.

None of this is to say that whiteness can’t encompass Latinos. “Latino” is a worthless racial category anyway. Not only does it not reflect how Latin Americans themselves see race, which is also varied and complicated, but it covers a huge group of diverse peoples with little in common except for language. So sure, I could see some Latinos being included in a whiteness category and others not. But doing so would require the breaking down, to some extent at least, of Americans’ beloved one-drop rule of race. And color me skeptical that will happen to any significant extent.

I am highly reticent to make any strong predictions of what whiteness will look like in 2050. It could be almost anything, and has already shifted to cover groups despised in the past. But I think there’s a good reason to take claims that whiteness will soon include large numbers of Latinos with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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