It’s rare that a Census Bureau press release dominates the front pages, but last week’s headline “Most Children Younger Than 1 Are Minorities, Census Reports” was the thrilling exception. The shortage of white Anglo babies, the press was eager to tell us, was a glimpse of things to come, of America’s future as a majority-minority nation.I have my doubts. “A minority,” the census release clarified, “is anyone who is not single-race white and not Hispanic.” It’s not that the census is counting the wrong thing. Rather, I suspect an awful lot of these “minority” babies are going to be white when they grow up.
When I filled out my 2010 census form I was, like many Americans with Spanish surnames, a bit puzzled. Prompted to ask if I am “of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” I said that I was. But it seems like a bit of a fraud.
Was somebody holding a gun to his head? Or, despite it's moral fraudulence, did it seem like the rationally self-interested thing to do, career-wise? If a media organization wants to put Matthew Yglesias in the Diverse box on their federal reports, it could be embarrassing if he admitted he didn't check Hispanic on the 2010 Census. Or is it just being cooperative? The federal government (which, by the way, has nuclear weapons) goes to an enormous amount of trouble to have people identify themselves as Hispanic (unless, of course, they've just committed a crime), so it might seem like a waste of the taxpayers dollars not to oblige.
My grandfather is José Yglesias, and his parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba. He grew up speaking Spanish at home in the Spanish-dominant community of Ybor City in Tampa, Fla. His books are published (in English) by Arte Público Press as part of their Pioneers of Modern U.S. Hispanic Literature series. It’s right there on the cover. And I am, obviously, a descendant of my own grandfather. So if he’s a pioneer of Hispanic literature, then clearly I am of Hispanic origin.Back in the real world, though, I’m just another white dude. My three other grandparents are all of Eastern European Jewish extraction. I grew up speaking English at home, though I once took a summer Spanish class at NYU. (One of grandpa’s pioneering works of U.S. Hispanic Literature, Tristan and the Hispanics, is precisely on this theme of assimilation. Young Tristan Granados, a white English-dominant Yale student, needs to travel to Ybor City to deal with his late paternal grandfather’s extended Cuban-American clan. He’s part of the family, but not really part of the culture—a very common element of the experience of immigration and assimilation in the United States and other major immigrant centers.)As books like How The Irish Became White and How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America make clear, whiteness in America has always been a somewhat elastic concept.
As you'll recall, heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, whose parents were born in Ireland, was wildly unpopular in the 1880s-1890s because he wasn't considered white, so there was a huge cultural frenzy among American whites to find the Great White Hope title contender who could beat Sullivan and wrest the title back from this nonwhite. Oh, wait ... I seem to be getting John L. Sullivan confused with Jack Johnson. In reality, it says in Wikipedia's bio of Sullivan:
He was the first American sports hero to become a national celebrity and the first American athlete to earn over one million dollars.
Gee, think how much more money he would have made if he were white! Or, perhaps Noel Ignatiev's ideological framework isn't ideal for helping one remember the actual facts of American history.
It’s conceivable that 40 years from now nobody will care about race at all. But if they do still care, it will still be the case that—by definition—whiteness is the racial definition of the sociocultural majority. If the only way for that to happen is to recruit large swathes of the Hispanic and fractionally Asian population into whiteness, then surely it will happen. Indeed, while the Census Bureau has always been very clear that some people are white, others black, and yet others Native American or Indian, the federal government has frequently changed its mind about the rest.
If you examine your history critically, you'll see that the trend before during the liberal mid-20th Century, before the invention of affirmative action in 1969, was toward more people being defined as white by the government. For example, there was no Hispanic or Latino or Mexican or whatever category at all in 1950 and 1960 because LULAC just wanted people descended from a Spanish-speaking cultural background to be considered part of the white majority.
The trend after 1969 was toward fewer being white: e.g., the creation of Hispanic Ethnicity as entitled to preferences and the the transfer of South Asians in 1982 from Caucasian to Asian. I'm not aware of any group switching to non-Hispanic white since the beginning of racial/ethnic preferences over 40 years ago.
Why would they give up these preferences to be just legally unpreferred non-Hispanic whites? The only way that marginal nonwhites will give up the legal privileges of nonwhiteness is for a Republican administration to push through massive changes in government policy that deprive Hispanics and Asians of their legally preferred status. In particular, abolish the entire legal category of Ethnicity, which only currently benefits Hispanics. But, of course, that would be racist, so nobody ever evens mentions the faintest notion of trying to do this. In the Yglesian worldview, all these legally nonwhite people are just supposed to give up their legal privileges on their own accord, so there's no need to worry about, you know, policy.