Skip to main content

Why are Hispanics identifying as white?

By Eric Liu
updated 9:51 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
The 2010 official US Census form.
The 2010 official US Census form.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: Pew study of census data shows many Hispanics now identifying as white
  • Liu: It could have implications in national politics, but mainly tells us about our views on race
  • He says longer Hispanics had been in U.S., more likely they were to check "white"
  • Liu: Danger in treating whiteness as ideal social baseline; America is and should be colorful

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- For all the complexity of our national complexion, Americans still too often think that white makes right.

Consider a new study of census returns reported on by the Pew Research Center. It showed, apparently, that significant numbers of Hispanics are now identifying as white. The research was presented at the recent Population Association of America meeting.

Some news reports suggested that Hispanics, rather than solidifying a distinct ethnic identity and becoming the driving force of a "majority-minority" future, might instead try to be just the latest group of immigrants, such as Italians or Jews, to "become white."

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

Such a shift, if it's real, has potentially big implications.

Think about national politics, where the Republican Party plays to a shrinking, aging and increasingly anxious base of white voters. If large numbers of Hispanics were to start thinking of themselves as white, that could alter the calculations and rhetoric of the GOP.

But it turns out such scenarios are at best premature. What the new research really appears to reveal is just how confused we continue to be about race -- and how, even amidst this confusion, whiteness remains a dangerously malleable idea that Americans must deal with more candidly.

Let's start with the three points of confusion that Pew's report on the new research revealed.

First, and most basic, is a statement that has been repeated yet ignored so often that it's like the fine print in an ad: "Hispanics can be of any race."

That means there are black, white, even Asian Hispanics. The label "Hispanic" -- meaning, "with origins or heritage in Spanish-speaking countries" -- was intended by the census to be a category of linguistic and ethnic heritage, not an official "race" of its own.

Yet in recent decades, Hispanics or Latinos have indeed begun to forge a cross-cutting identity that can feel like a racial category (shorthanded as "brown") and is sometimes set beside the other major blocs of America's racial color grid. So Hispanics can be at once a race and not a race. It's no wonder that media coverage of Hispanics can be muddled.

The second point of confusion is that the new research did not in fact find a Hispanic flight to whiteness.

What it found was that growing numbers of Hispanics, when told by government forms that they were not a race unto themselves and that they had to choose a race, chose the category called "white." As the study authors noted, this reflected the convolutions and limits of the census forms (which are to change in 2020) at least as much any underlying yearning among Hispanics to be white.

Will racism end when old guys die?
Florida could top New York in population
Fewer Americans uninsured

But this brings us to the third point of confusion, which is that to the extent that some Hispanics did in fact want to be seen as white rather than Hispanic, they were using the clumsy language of color to express the subtle reality of class.

An earlier Pew report indicated that the longer their families had been in America, the more likely Hispanics were to check the "white" box. This suggests that the way Americans say "upward mobility for immigrants" or "mainstream integration" is still too often "becoming white."

Indeed, sometimes our national discourse on race proceeds as if it were all about groups of color vying to be acknowledged, while white people sit back and watch. The invention of panethnic categories such as "Latino" or "Asian American," categories that take on a racial life of their own, is in part a reaction to the white-norming of politics and pop culture. But it's also a time-tested, all-American tradition. For proof, look no further than the invention of the white race itself.

The great waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries -- to say nothing of the baroque rules of racial categorization in the slaveholding South -- showed that Americans have always been deviously flexible about deciding who gets to be white. At first the Irish weren't, then they were. Same with the Italians and Jews.

In more recent times, Asian Americans who've achieved in visible ways have been granted "honorary white" status (wanted or not), while some people of color seeking middle-class success have been accused by their co-ethnics of "acting white" (whether they thought of it that way or not).

The great risk, underscored by the reactions to the new research, is that we go on unthinkingly treating whiteness as the ideal and social baseline of American life.

That's harmful because it subordinates people whose backgrounds aren't "white" and because it stunts the capacity of all people -- not least poor and working-class whites -- to name and reckon with class divides and inequality.

I propose a better way of talking about what third- or fourth-generation Hispanics, or ambitious new arrivals in Chinatown, or resilient African American first-in-the-family college students are all doing. They're not becoming white. They're becoming American.

And to become American is now a more colorful, complex and class-bound undertaking than it has ever been. Let's learn to see it that way.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the source of the new research reported on by Pew. It was presented at the Annual Population Association of America meeting.

Share your stories of your modern family

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT