Shades of Belonging

Shades of Belonging

For U.S. Latinos, feeling white seems to be a reflection of success and a sense of inclusion, according to a new report from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Hispanics who identified themselves as white in the 2000 Census have higher levels of education and income and greater degrees of civic enfranchisement than those who pick the census category of “some other race.” The findings of this study, which examined Census Bureau data and information from surveys and focus groups conducted by the Center, suggest that Hispanics see race as a measure of belonging, and whiteness as a measure of inclusion, or of perceived inclusion.

The report reveals that Latinos' choice to identify as white, or not, does not exclusively reflect permanent markers such as skin color or hair texture but that race is also related to characteristics that can change, such as economic status and perceptions of civic enfranchisement.

In the 2000 Census, 48 percent of Hispanics identified themselves as white and 2 percent as black. Six percent identified themselves as belonging to two or more of the standard racial categories. But 15 million (43 percent) of the Hispanics in the United States skipped over the traditional racial definitions and instead checked off “some other race.” Analysis of census data and much other evidence by the Pew Hispanic Center suggest that Hispanics take distinctive views of race, and because their numbers are large and growing fast, these views are likely to change the way the nation manages the fundamental social divide that has characterized American society for 400 years.

“Understanding Latinos' views of their racial identities helps illuminate the ways that race is being lived in America today,” said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “This population is divided almost in half between those who call themselves 'white' and those that do not. The clear differences between them, documented in this report, show that Latinos have seized on whiteness as a measure of success, a measure of belonging. While many Hispanics see themselves having achieved that status, many also do not.”

According to the report, whether a person was born in the United States or abroad is a key characteristic in shaping the Hispanic population. Somewhat more foreign-born Latinos say they are of some other race (46 percent) than the native born (40 percent). Cuban-born immigrants are the exception. More importantly, whiteness is clearly associated with distance from the immigrant experience. Thus, the U.S.-born children of immigrants are more likely to declare themselves white than their foreign-born parents, and the share of whiteness is higher still among the grandchildren of immigrants. In addition, the acquisition of U.S. citizenship is associated with whiteness.

Among immigrants from the same country, those who have become U.S. citizens identify themselves as white more often than those who are not U.S. citizens. It seems unlikely that the ability and willingness to become a U.S. citizen are somehow linked to skin color. Thus, it may be that developing deeper civic bonds here can help an immigrant feel white.

"It is not that some are more Hispanic or Latino than the others because they all really have taken on the mantle,” said Sonya Tafoya, a research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center and author of the report. “Nor are Hispanics saying that race does not matter to them. Rather, the message seems to be that Latinos in the United States experience race differently. For them, it is not something that pertains exclusively to skin color, let alone history and heritage.”

Examining the native-born Hispanic demonstrates the full extent to which race is a measure of belonging for some Latinos. Some of the major findings of the study include:

  • The share of high school drop outs is higher for those who say they are some other race (35 percent) than for those who call themselves white (30 percent).
  • Unemployment runs two points higher among native-born Hispanic males who declare themselves some other race compared to those who say they are white and poverty rates are four points higher among adults.
  • The share of native-born Latino men earning more than $35,000 a year is a third higher for those who say they are white compared to the some other race group (24.7 percent vs. 18.5 percent).
  • Hispanics who say they are some other race tend to be younger (median age 24) than those who say they are white (median age 27).
  • More of those native-born Hispanics who say they are white (85 percent) are registered voters than those who say they are of some other race (67 percent).
  • When asked whether they consider themselves Republicans, Democrats, Independents or something else, more native-born Latinos who say they are white (22 percent) pick Republican compared to those who say they are some other race (13 percent). The same pattern prevailed among the foreign-born.
  • When asked to choose between the terms “American” versus “Hispanic” or “Latino” versus a national origin identifier such as “Mexican,” far more native-born Latinos who say they are white (55 percent) pick “American” compared to those who say they are some other race (36 percent).
  • About a quarter of native-born Latinos who say they are white complain that discrimination is a major problem for Latinos in the United States compared to a third of those who say they are some other race.

The Pew Hispanic Center delves into these issues in this report, Shades of Belonging.