Friday, August 22, 2008

Decline of the “White non-Hispanic” No Big Deal

It’s been a week since the Census Bureau released a report that supposedly predicts white people will no longer make up a majority of Americans by the middle of the century. “Minorities” will form the majority, and one-third of Americans will be Hispanic, we are told. That’s 132.8 million people.

Visions of brown-skinned men hanging out downtown to wait for the contractor in a pickup while their wives go home to clean suburban houses and their kids join a street gang.
Sounds like an radical overthrow of the old American order.

It isn’t.

Hispanic and Asian immigration is certainly changing the country, like immigration always has since the years when Germans and Irish then southern and eastern Europeans settled in what had been a nation of Britons and enslaved Africans.

We hear languages other than English more often, and we see more people who look “foreign.” We like the entrepreneurial spirit of some immigrants, yet worry that others will join the underclass.

But simplisms about the end of “white” dominance and “minorities” becoming “majorities” do not explain what is going on.

For one thing, the Census report did not predict that “whites” will make up less than 50 percent of the population. What it did say is that whites who have no Hispanic ancestry will make up less than 50 percent of the population.

Is that a big deal? No. By mid-century, as populations blur through intermarriage and assimilation, the category “white non-Hispanic” will be less meaningful than it is today. Except among the xenophobic fringe, it won’t matter much that white Americans without Hispanic ancestry make up less than half of the nation’s population.

“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” movies illustrate the point.

Honduran-American actress America Ferrera, who has the ethnic appearance most Americans expect of Hispanics, plays Carmen Lowell. Fictional Carmen is half-Puerto Rican and half-Anglo, but meant to be perceived as a Hispanic character.

One of Carmen’s friends is Lena Kaligaris, a fictional Greek-American — which puts her under the category of “white non-Hispanic.” She is played by the Texan actress Alexis Bledel, who might be categorized as “white non-Hispanic,” going by her fair looks. Yet she has an Argentinean father and a mother whose roots are in Mexico. So she is every bit as Hispanic as America Ferrera, if less obviously so.

And the point is: Big deal. Fictional Carmen is a young Hispanic woman at home in the mainstream threatening no one with her ethnicity, while the real-life Bledel is a young Hispanic woman who few even realize is Hispanic. Those girls — the characters as well as the actresses — couldn’t possibly be anything other than American. They already arrived to the place Hispanic America is going to be by mid-century, even if it’s hard to see now.

Our national confusion about Hispanics begins with the system of ethnic and racial classification taken for granted in this country, which incorrectly classifies “Hispanics” into a race apart, mutually exclusive with whites, blacks, Asians or Native Americans.

Actually, a Hispanic individual can be of any race or combination of races. Cesar Chávez was mestizo, descended from European colonists and the pre-Columbian people of Mexico. Roberto Clemente was a black man whose ancestors were Africans enslaved in Puerto Rico. Andy Garcia’s white Spanish forebears settled in Cuba.

One could go on: Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori is of Japanese ancestry, Chile’s founding father Bernardo O’Higgins has ancestors who immigrated from Ireland, Shakira is Colombian-Lebanese and in Miami, there are at least two predominantly Hispanic synagogues.

We are a diverse bunch. In the 2006 American Community Survey, 52.3 percent of Hispanics self-identified as white, and 41.2 percent said they were “some other race.”

There is also intermarriage. Census figures show about a quarter of all Hispanics marry someone who is not Hispanic, with the figure reaching 30 percent among U.S.-born Hispanics.

What that does is blur categories, not give rise to a tectonic demographic shift. It’s particularly true when white Hispanics marry white non-Hispanics. The children of such marriages are part Hispanic, so the half-Cuban Cameron Diaz, say, could not logically count as “white non-Hispanic.”

Which makes Ms. Diaz guilty of contributing to the decline of white non-Hispanics into minority status.

Can anybody think of anything less momentous?

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