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Where did all the white Hispanics go?

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A massive but to date little noted shift took place in the US population, as measured by the 2010 and 2020 censuses, respectively.

In the 2010 survey, 53% of all “Hispanics/Latino/Spanish” respondents identified their race as white, while 37% identified their race as “Other” (There are four races — white, black, American Indian/Alaska native, and then various subcategories of Asian — listed on the census form, along with box for Other if you don’t want to wedge your identity into this Very Scientific Taxonomy). 6% listed two or more races (Note there’s no box for two or more races — you have to affirmatively check more than one box in the race category, which the form explicitly allows you to do).

In the 2020 census, these numbers shifted drastically. Only 20% of Hispanic/Latino/Spanish respondents listed their race as white — a 62% decline The percentage of respondents listing their race as Other rose by 13.5%, while that of those listing themselves as two or more races increased by a staggering 450%, from 6% to 33%.

Normally, when we see such an enormous shift in a short period of time in the self-identification of a sub-population of tens of millions of people, the reason will be related to a significant change in survey methods. I haven’t been able to track down if such a shift played a role here: the 2010 and 2020 forms were identical in regard to these questions, except for the addition of what seems like a pretty subtle prompt describing the White category (“for example, German, Irish, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian”) and a box for describing what subgroup of White you identify with. The 2010 survey doesn’t have that prompt, or ask for white or black or American Indian/Alaska Native self subcategorization; the 2020 survey asks for self-subcategorization for all “races.” Both forms, oddly, don’t actually have any box for “Asian:” they just go straight to the subcategorization section for Asian identities.

So what’s going on? The answer is that nobody knows but of course there’s plenty of speculation. A couple of USC sociologists have some guesses:

When it asked for race, the census in 2020 added prompts under the “white” category that included countries not associated with America’s Latino population. Still, the move away from “white” is so dramatic that it could be other factors as well — such as a xenophobic political climate that has made many Latinos aware that whiteness may not be easily within their reach.

Yet another part of the census story may be explained by the numbers of Latino millennials who are developing an identity as “people of color” often in alliance with Black, Asian American and Indigenous groups. The “BIPOC” label has been adopted and supported by young people of many ethnic and racial groups since the racial justice protests prompted by the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd.

They go on to describe the shifting situation in the South Central area of Los Angeles, which a generation ago was overwhelmingly black, but is now two-thirds Latino, suggesting that a certain amount of interweaving of Latino and black identity is happening among younger Latinos in this area, who, as one respondent put it, have been raised “in an aura of Blackness.”

That may be, but doesn’t seem to have much if any relevance to the broader national question of why the proportion of Hispanics who identify as white dropped by nearly two-thirds over the last ten years.

My guess, which is only that, is that the age of Trump is featuring a kind of exodus from white identity among subgroups that, culturally speaking, have that option (It should be unnecessary to emphasize here that whiteness is a purely sociological phenomenon that has no non-social independent reality. You’re white if you think of yourself as white and are accepted as such in your social context. There isn’t any other “fact of the matter,” in the way that there would be if you thought of yourself as six feet tall but then were measured as 5’10” for example).

As a Mexican-American who is considered guero in Mexico (hard to term to translate, but one that has significant overlap with the concept of “white” north of the border) and what I’ve labeled “off white” in the USA, I’ve felt this myself over the last few years, which of course means there’s a risk I’m over-interpreting my own experience, which is an inherent risk of all sociologicalesque speculation.

Anyway this all seems like a very significant development in a bunch of ways, given that nearly one in five Americans now identifies as Hispanic/Latino, and that proportion is continuing to grow rapidly. How many of us think of ourselves and are thought of as white is something that’s going to play a huge role in American politics over the next few decades, given that, in America today, we now have a white nationalist party and a party opposed to white nationalism, and nothing else on the political menu for the foreseeable future.

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