I have one Cuban grandparent. Why does the census count me as Hispanic?

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May 22 2012 1:49 PM

The Myth of Majority-Minority America

I have one Cuban grandparent. Why does the census count me as Hispanic?

Race distinctions are becoming much more difficult to determine
Race distinctions are becoming much more difficult to determine

Photograph by iStockphoto.

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. 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.

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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.

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. The first time an additional option showed up was in Census 1870’s addition of a “Chinese” race. By 1890 you were also allowed to be “Japanese,” and “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” categories were implemented for the fractionally black. These mixed-race categories vanished in 1900, but mulatto returned in 1910, and in 1920 “Hindu,” “Korean,” and “Filipino” became races. Mulatto vanished in 1930, and “Mexican” became a race, though people of Mexican ancestry had been living in large parts of the United States since those parts of the country actually belonged to Mexico. In 1940, Mexicans were granted white status—a measure backed up by a 1943 Texas law passed in part as an act of wartime solidarity, in appreciation of Latin American support for the anti-Nazi cause.

Hindu and Korean vanished in 1950, but Korean returned in 1970 along with an “Other” category. In 1980, “Vietnamese,” “Asian Indian,” and “Guamanian” became races, and the government started classifying people as Hispanic or not-Hispanic over and above their racial designation. Only in 1990 did the Census hit upon the idea of lumping a bunch of people together into a catchall “Asian” race. In 2000 they gave us the “two or more races” category.

The point of this long-winded recitation is simply that with the important exception of the black/white dichotomy, America has never operated with a stable conception of race. The factoid that 50 percent of our latest baby crop is other than non-Hispanic white is true only relative to the 2000 census scheme. There’s no reason to believe that this particular categorization will continue as bureaucratic practice or social reality. I recall a telling incident from several years ago when Ta-Nehisi Coates referred to half-Korean Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O as white, only to apologize for the error later. It’s common for Hispanic actors to play presumptively Anglo characters, as in Cuban/Colombian Odette Annable’s Dr. Jessica Adams, or Mexican-American Michelle Forbes’ various characters on Homicide, Battlestar Galactica, and The Killing (she did have, admittedly, a memorable “ethnic” turn as a Bajoran on Star Trek: The Next Generation).

A more telling statistic than the census’s babies factoid was a February Pew report on interracial marriage, which revealed that 28 percent of Asians marry non-Asians and 26 percent of Hispanics marry non-Hispanics. This means that, yes, under the census formalism the number of two-or-more races people will surge. But it also reiterates the point that the boundaries between these categories are relatively fluid. If the government insists on rigidly applying the current scheme, complete with its odd one-drop-of-blood conception of Latino identity, then America will, indeed, become majority minority. But long-term stability has never been a hallmark of official government thinking on this subject. Everyone knows that a large share of the black population is in fact partially white, while a smaller—but not entirely trivial—share of the white population is partially black. The future of American whiteness will likely evolve to include a larger share of ancestry from Asia and Latin America, just as in the past it’s expanded to include people from eastern and southern Europe. The idea that every single person with a single non-white ancestor counts as non-white will look as ridiculous as Elizabeth Warren’s past claim of Cherokee identity.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.