Photo: San Jose, California, May Day March. Credit: z2amiller, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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The “Hispanic” census category is ambiguous; Hispanics can be any race. In 1980, some whites objected to adding “Hispanic” as an “ethnic” category because it was both imprecise and insulting to white “ethnics” such as Poles and Italians.
“Census Questions on Race Assailed as Political by Population Experts,” reported the New York Times in 1978, in an article that probably could not be published today:
A question will be devoted to those of Hispanic origin, even though it would apply to only about 5 percent of the population. There is no place, except in a special long form that will go to one in five households, for those who wish to identify themselves as members of the larger ethnic groups, such as Polish, Irish or Italian . . . .
Census officials defend the ethnic questions, saying they are a response to new legislation and to the legitimate interests of disadvantaged minority groups seeking a better count of their numbers. “We are addressing legislative intent and the needs of Government,” said Meyer Zitter, chief of the Census Bureau’s Population Division. “We are trying to balance the needs of many different interests.”
Conservatives briefly considered whether ethnic whites deserve census categories. In Richard Nixon’s White House, Pat Buchanan mused about the political benefits of making an explicitly “ethnic Catholic” choice for Supreme Court nominees. His rationale was political, as he explained in his memoir, Nixon’s White House Wars:
Not blacks, not Jews, but ethnic Catholics — Poles, Irish, Italians, Slovaks, etc. are where the ducks are. We ought now to be canvassing the best legal and judicial conservative minds in the Italian-American, the Irish-American, and the Polish-American community — and the fellow ought to be a Holy Name Society Daily Communicant. (p. 107)
Indeed, the idea of pursuing ethnic Catholics, traditionally considered Democrats, was a key part of Ronald Reagan’s strategy. The 1980 Republican Convention that nominated him included this as part of its platform:
Millions of Americans who trace their heritage to the nations of Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe have for too long seen their values neglected. . . . We must make them an integral part of government. . . . The Republican Party will take positive steps to see to it that these Americans, along with others too long neglected, have the opportunity to share the power, as well as the burdens of our society.
Who can imagine such a plank today? Even 40 years ago, it was hot air. Ethnic whites were merged into a larger “white” identity — and this didn’t lead to a boom in their influence and power. Instead, the “Hispanic” category, once scoffed at by demographers as meaningless and too small, is now the largest non-white group in the United States, about 63 million people. And the people who established the category knew what they were doing.
The 1978 New York Times article explained:
Minority leaders make no apologies for exerting influence. Asked about the demographers’ charge that groups like hers were seeking political power and money, Vilma S. Martinez, head of the Mexican‐American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and chairman of a special census advisory committee on Spanish population, said: “We are trying to get our just share of political influence and Federal funds. There’s nothing sinister about it.”
Many Hispanic groups were part of this. Ironically, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which was founded in 1929, had as one of its primary goals that Mexican’s be classed as “whites,” and the “First Four Founding Principles” from its first meeting would be considered fanatically far-right today:
- To develop within the members of our race the best, purest, and most perfect type of a true and loyal citizen of the United States of America.
- To eradicate from the body politic all intents and tendencies to establish discriminations among our fellow citizens on account of race, religion, or social position as being contrary to the true spirit of Democracy, our Constitution and Laws.
- To use all the legal means at our command to the end that all citizens in our country may enjoy equal rights, the equal protection of the laws of the land and equal opportunities and privileges.
- The acquisition of the English language, which is the official language of the country, being necessary for the enjoyment of our rights and privileges, we declare it to be the official language of this organization, and we pledge ourselves to learn and speak and teach same to our children. (LULAC), 1929
Priorities shifted when it became more profitable to be non-white. Joseph Fallon noted that by the 1950s, LULAC was no longer the “middle-class, patriotic organization” it had once been:
In 1954, LULAC succeeded in having the U.S. Supreme Court hear Hernandez v. Texas, the first ‘Hispanic’ civil rights case. LULAC asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the murder conviction of a Mexican-American in Jackson County, Texas on grounds that the composition of the jury was unconstitutional. Although Mexicans comprised 14 percent of the population of Jackson County, none had served on a jury for the previous 25 years. LULAC argued that by not having any Mexicans on his jury, the convicted murderer’s constitutional rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment had been violated. The Court agreed with Chief Justice Earl Warren affirming ‘that persons of Mexican descent were a distinct class’ — not ‘white’ but not ‘black’ either . . . .
The original LULAC declared ‘Mexican-Americans’ to be ‘white,’ a part of the same race as European-Americans, and successfully lobbied both the federal and Texas governments to officially classify them as such. Nearly a quarter of a century later, LULAC’s position changed. Beginning with Hernandez v. Texas in 1954 and finalized in OMB Directive No. 15 in 1977, LULAC succeeded in having the federal government recognize ‘Mexicans,’ and all ‘Hispanics,’ as separate from European-Americans and essentially ‘non-white’ so as to be eligible for affirmative action programs.
The “Hispanic” category that first appeared on the 1980 Census was therefore partly due to ethnic lobbying. Groups such as the National Council of La Raza encouraged Spanish-speakers to say they were Hispanic because it would mean more effective appeals to corporations and the government.
LULAC’s own views of English changed. Instead of pledging to speak English and teach it to their children, LULAC now criticizes English-only bills.
LULAC has monitored the emergence and growing prominence of the movement to declare “English” the official language in some states. This movement, if unchallenged, will eventually make “English” the official language of the United States of North America. . . .
LULAC feels that cultural and linguistic pluralism is part of the “true glue” that holds our great nation together and has established the “English Plus Concept” as a response to the un-American opposing nature of the “English Only Movement.”
Whatever “un-American” means today, it was far different in 1929.
Cristina Mora, author of “Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Created a New American,” explained to NPR why it was rational to be “Hispanic”:
They could go up to the Department of Education, for example, and say, “Latinos are the second-largest minority group. And yet, our educational attainment pales to that of whites. Send money to our schools.”
The census says anyone who claims to be Hispanic is “Hispanic.” According to legislation from 1976, “Hispanics” are “Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin and or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America and other Spanish-speaking countries.” Thus, an entirely European man from Argentina could claim to be Hispanic and get official privileges, but Brazilians are “white” because they speak Portuguese.
It may not matter. As the Pew Research Center explained in 2021, “Who is Hispanic? Anyone who says they are. And nobody who says they aren’t.” Brazilians who feel left out can just say they are Hispanic. Some may not have to. As one source noted in 2020:
In 1980, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) – not wanting to exclude people from the largest country in South America, Brazil – adopted its own definition of Hispanic that included people of “Spanish and Portuguese culture with origins in Mexico, South or Central America or the Caribbean Islands,” a description that excluded the European Portuguese and Spanish.
Less than one year later, under a new administration and pressure from a Hispanic American Contractors group that petitioned for inclusion of Hispanic people of European origin, DOT decided to include the Spanish. And, so as not to exclude the Brazilians, DOT added the designation “of Portuguese origin,” thus extending the ethnonym to people from Portugal.
By happenstance, in 1983, the Portuguese were left out of the definition of Hispanic added by Congress to section 8d of the Small Business Act (SBA).
This exclusion was met with protest by Portuguese-American contractors and some of their representatives in Congress. The Portuguese were added back into the description of Hispanic by the Small Business Administration in 1986 and by DOT in 1997.
In some US states, the Portuguese were also granted minority status, and this, as well, proved to be of substantial benefit to some Portuguese-owned businesses. Recently, some of these states have rescinded the classification of “minority” for Portuguese business.
Clearly, people want to be considered “disadvantaged” because then they get advantages. This isn’t just idiotic; it damages national unity. Racial/ethnic Categories are a powerful barrier to assimilation. People who think of themselves as non-white are less likely to think the United States is their “real” country. According to a Pew Hispanic poll in 2004, Cubans are far more likely (86 percent) than other Hispanics to calls themselves “white,” and more than half said America was their “real” homeland. Only about a third of Mexicans, Central and South Americans, and Puerto Ricans did — even though the latter are all US citizens. Even Cubans may be changing, as younger Cubans who didn’t flee Fidel Castro start adopting a pan-Hispanic (and politically leftist) identity, rather than the white, Republican identity of their elders.
If you subsidize something, you get more of it. Republicans understand this in economics. It beggars belief to think they don’t understand it in the culture wars.