Editor’s Note: Justin Gest is an Associate Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of six books on the politics of immigration and demographic change including, most recently, “Majority Minority.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
“What is your race or origin?”
That question, as asked by the US Census Bureau every 10 years, seems straightforward. But it’s not simple for many people, including Latinos, who have a variety of family backgrounds that don’t always fit neatly inside America’s racial categories. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, their answers are signaling a broader political shift inside America’s largest ethnic minority.
Long reliable Democrats, Hispanic Americans have shown in scores of surveys that they often feel conflicted about both of America’s political parties – making them a valuable swing constituency cultivated by Democrats and Republicans.
According to new analysis of the Axios/Ipsos US Latino series, Latinos with strong party preferences still break for Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin, but the largest share of Latinos – more than four in ten – now says that neither party represents people like them, or they aren’t sure who they support.
Among these undecided people, Latinos’ policy priorities break down along color lines, revealing the way that vexing racial boundaries continue to define American lives and, as a result, help explain their political preferences.
Latinos who emphasize their white identity are more likely to identify as conservative Republicans and oppose redistributive welfare policies. Meanwhile, Black and mixed-race Latinos are nearly twice as likely as White Latinos or those who avoid selecting a race to feel that neither party represents people like them.
Race has always been a complicated matter in Latin America, where European colonial policies produced distinctions between African-, indigenous- and European-origin subgroups, not so differently from the United States.
But Americans – and American demographers – have been distracted by linguistic differences and historically labeled them all, monolithically, “Hispanics.” This masks the complexity of Latino identity, and the way many Latinos carried racial distinctions and sensitivities with them to the US.
Many Latinos with indigenous or mestizo backgrounds – people who may otherwise self-identify as “brown” – are naturally reluctant to fit themselves into the black-white binary of conventional US metrics. And it is debated whether those who select “white” on surveys do so because they truly think of themselves as white, or because they employ white identity strategically as a signal of assimilation or a defense against discrimination.
However, to understand how undecided Latinos may vote in the 2022 midterms, a look at issue priorities reveals the way Latinos actually are sorting into persistent American categories of color.
Latinos who identify as “white” hold issue priorities that mirror those of non-Hispanic White people. White Latinos’ top concerns surround crime or gun violence, inflation and Covid-19, while non-Hispanic White people prioritize inflation, crime or gun violence, and political extremism or polarization. The smaller subgroup of Latinos identifying with two or more races even more closely aligns with White people.
Politically, White Latino respondents perceive Republicans as stronger on economic policy than Democrats. “Black” and “brown” Latinos believe Democrats are better with economics.
Latinos who identify as “black” hold different priorities, according to the Ipsos poll. While they are also most concerned with crime or gun violence, their next top concerns are racial injustice, discrimination and education – priorities closer to those of African Americans more broadly.
Meanwhile, “brown” Latinos who self-identified as “other” rank immigration as one of their top issues, on par with inflation and just 10 points behind crime or gun violence.
The Democratic Party has long viewed immigration policy as a principal way to mobilize support from Latinos, but this is now a priority for a narrower subset of people – around a quarter of Latinos in the Ipsos study.
This helps explain why former President Donald Trump and Republicans were not penalized for their anti-immigration rhetoric in the 2020 election as much as some observers expected. Today, a majority of Latinos say they support the invocation of Title 42 policy, which the Trump administration enacted in the early days of the pandemic and allowed US authorities to turn migrants away at the border without a trial to reduce the spread of Covid 19. This policy, which was ended by President Joe Biden’s administration earlier this year, is less popular among Latinos who identify as neither white nor black.
To understand why Latinos differ in these policy priorities, their life experiences are telling.
The “brown” Latinos who avoided identifying with any major racial group were significantly more likely than any other group to experience someone asking them if they were “illegal” or “undocumented.” Over half of this subgroup says that people have asked them if they speak English before starting a conversation, and a similar share has been asked what country they are from, substantially more than any other group.
A majority of Black and mixed-race Latinos report that they have been subject to racist comments and have experienced someone making fun of a Hispanic or Latino accent, substantially more than White Latinos.
Meanwhile, Latinos who emphasize their Latino identity and those with university education are less likely to self-categorize as white. Those with higher incomes are more likely to do so.
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As White Latinos grow distant from their immigrant origins and experience American society more like non-Hispanic White people – with fewer encounters with discrimination or microaggressions – their politics may be conforming to the ideological trends of White Americans more broadly. And because they comprise 60% of all US-born Hispanics, their evolution will swing the broader Latino vote.
Taken together, these trends only extend the racialization of American public affairs. In an era defined by culture wars and identity politics, Hispanics – a dynamic group that has always fit awkwardly into America’s reductive racial categories – are demonstrating the continuing power of these colonial boundaries and their absorption into the mega-identities that Democrats and Republicans now embody.
We will only begin to transcend our divisions by recognizing the ways that people of all racial identities share a common devotion to the American project, a common struggle to pursue the American dream. But in its propensity to sort voters into established coalitions, the American political process is an unlikely bridge.