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?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Where Have All the Josés Gone?

It was sobering news for some earlier this year when the Social Security Administration reported that the most frequently given name for males born in Texas in 2007 was José.

Then this week a new report from the Census Bureau must have shook them up some more, with the projection that “Minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050.”

Hispanics are the fastest growing group, the report says. The Hispanic share of the total U.S. population will double from 15 percent to 30 percent between now and 2050.

Ah, not to worry. We’re not taking over.

One study conducted this year by the Spanish-language edition of, a Web site owned by Johnson & Johnson (here is the report, in Spanish), found that Brandon, Michael and Jonathan ranked among the top 10 male names for babies of Hispanic parents born in the United States in 2007; just one of the three has a traditional Spanish translation, “Miguel.”

Other names that made the list are pretty much the same in Spanish and English: Sebastian, David, Daniel, Nicolas, Samuel. The only uniquely Spanish name that made the Top 10 was Diego.

And the same study found that among U.S.-born Hispanic girls in 2007, nine of the 10 top names were Camila, Sophia, Valerie, Isabella, Nicole, Melanie, Alexa, Samantha, Sara and Ashley.

So, no way José. Nomenclaturally speaking, at least, Hispanic Americans are becoming Anglicized.

You can see it in the roster of U.S. Olympians. A look at the names of the athletes shows about 20 individuals with unambiguously Spanish surnames and only one of them, runner Jorge Torres, has an unambiguously Spanish first name. Others like softball outfielder Jessica Mendoza, soccer’s Michael Orozco and wrestler Henry Cejudo have Anglo first names, though I won’t tell anyone how to classify taekwondo’s Diana López or runner Leonel Manzano.

Of course, on rosters for athletes from Spanish-speaking countries, traditional Hispanic names are the norm. Argentina’s soccer team is full of names like Fernando and Juan — but this being Argentina, the surnames are just about evenly split between those with origins in Spain and Italy.

Mexican Olympians, too, mostly have traditional Spanish first names. There are four Josés in the 85-member delegation, but I’m not sure whether that makes the list José-heavy, José-light or José-right.

Mexico also has remained loyal to old-fashioned names that sound hopelessly antiquated in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world: There’s marathoner Procopio Franco, swimmer Imelda Martínez. Still, you also find a sprinkling of newfangled names that seem invented by parents. There’s a runner named Zudikey Rodríguez, a diver named Yahel Castillo.

Zudikey? Yahel? These are far from the santoral, the list of Catholic saint names from which for centuries Spanish-speaking parents drew inspiration — like San José (or St. Joseph) and even a certain St. Procopius. My Cuban birth certificate states my full name as Roger Emilio Hernández Vázquez, but my baptism makes it Roger Emilio Julian Hernández Vázquez, because Jan. 9, my birthday, is the feast day for St. Julian.

Spanish names from the santoral remain overwhelmingly the norm in most Hispanic communities. But things are changing some places. One such place is here in the United States, with the growing trend of Hispanic parents giving their children Anglicized names like Michael or Ashley.

But names like that are not removed from the santoral — they are the English names of the same saints. Just about everybody has heard of St. Michael, and believe it or not, there is a St. Ashley. According to, he was an Englishman “who went to Valladolid, Spain, in 1590, became a Jesuit laybrother and returned to England in 1598” only to be tortured and executed.

Where naming customs have grown the most estranged from santoral tradition is in Cuba.

On the Olympics roster, the baseball team has one each of Eduardo, Antonio, Carlos, Norberto and Pedro. A bunch of perfectly normal, traditional Spanish saint names. But then you get Yulieski, Yoandry, Yorelvis. The women’s track team has names just as bizarre: Yenima, Yarisley, Yumisleidis, Yaniubis, Yunaika. In Miami, too, Ys abound among Cuban immigrants who arrived over the last decade or so.

Why “Y”? Nobody knows. Yoani Sánchez, the dissident Havana blogger who runs the hugely popular Generación Y says the name was “inspired by people like me, with names that begin with or contain a ‘Y’. Born in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, marked by schools in the countryside, Russian cartoons, illegal emigration and frustration.”

Emigration there, immigration here. A Census Bureau study last year found that two Spanish surnames, García and Rodríguez, rank among the top 10 most common in the United States.

A reminder we are here.

But a reminder, too, that there is no Hispanic monolith. Just people named José, or Ysomething, or Procopio, or Ashley.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Obama Needs Nuance Without Ambiguity

“I don’t do nuance,” President Bush supposedly once said to Sen. Joe Biden.

And he didn’t, during the past eight years, in ways too disastrous, too numerous, too familiar to list.

If Bush’s problem was not doing nuance, Obama is facing the opposite problem: doing too much of it. Good for policy, bad for politics.

He goes to Iraq, sees what’s happening and realizes that the timetable he favored needs to be more flexible than he first believed. Obama made the shift only after he satisfied himself in person that the actual security situation on the ground required discarding rigidly preconceived, ideologically driven troop movements deadlines.

It’s what presidents are supposed to do (though we can think of one who didn’t). Yet Obama got hammered for flip-flopping.

Obama has also been attacked for changing his mind on any number of other issues: offshore oil drilling, dipping into the strategic petroleum reserve, NAFTA, negotiating “without preconditions” with Iran and Cuba, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Not every Obama supporter is going to like every tug and adjustment. What could he possibly have been thinking when he called the D.C. gun ban unconstitutional?

And some of those tugs and adjustments are self-serving. Nothing else explains his opting out of public campaign financing.

So there’s political calculation mixed in there with the policy nuance. Well, it is politics. But now Obama’s job is to show that it is not all politics.

He can do that by leading a reform of affirmative action.

Obama has the opportunity to bring nuance to these policies because there is no agreement on what affirmative action is, or even on what its purpose should be.

On one side, there are liberals who fear that any recalibration of racial preference programs means disaster for ethnic minorities left unprotected from discrimination.

The left that loves nothing better than a nice wallow in virtuous victimhood saw no problem with the program at the University of Michigan that was struck down by the Supreme Court five years ago, under which Barack Obama’s daughters would have received an automatic 20 points on a scale of 150 because they would have been deemed underprivileged. To assume that being black equals being socioeconomically disadvantaged is nothing less than a hidden form of racism.

Obama sees the absurdity in that. He told George Stephanopoulos last year that his daughters “should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged.” And he added that “we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.”

It’s a move toward an affirmative action that considers factors other than race. But without forgetting race, because at the same time, Obama needs also to confront conservatives who like to pretend racial discrimination is no longer a barrier to progress. These people, too, love their own right-leaning wallow in virtuous victimhood — remember that infamous Jesse Helms ad with the “white hands” crumpling a job rejection letter because “they had to give it to a minority”?

An Obama reform of affirmative action must have as a premise the fact that racial discrimination is much more likely to affect people who are not white — while at the same time, the policy must be nuanced enough to recognize that indeed, reverse discrimination is also reprehensible and should be every bit as illegal.

Then there is that buzzword, “diversity,” derided on the right as mere political correctness. Well, “diversity” in the workplace brings together individuals from different backgrounds, with different ideas and different ways of doing things so that an enterprise can consider a product or service from various perspectives. Why does that make some on the right uneasy?

And so, there you have Obama’s nuanced affirmative action: It should be used to oppose racial discrimination, whether overt from the right or the veiled, patronizing kind from the left; it should boost disadvantaged people regardless of race; and it should promote the benefits of diversity.

He has said much of all that, a little bit here and a little bit there, sometimes ambiguously. Now he needs to lay it all out. Nuance without ambiguity. Because what this country urgently needs is a president unafraid to act boldly upon shades of gray.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Is McCain the New Dole?

Twelve years ago against Bill Clinton, Bob Dole ran a spectacularly inept effort to win Hispanic votes. There was little money, almost no ads and a couple of staffers cut off from campaign insiders. The candidate was an honorable man, a war hero with a dry sense of humor, but worried too much about protecting his right flank from the likes of immigrant-bashing Pat Buchanan.

Dole clueless about Hispanic America, ended up with a record-low 21 percent of the Hispanic vote. Even in Cuban Miami, “in the most lopsided Republican stronghold precincts of Hialeah and Little Havana, which Bush and Reagan were sometimes able to carry by margins as high as nine to one, Dole barely received 60 percent of the vote,” wrote Darío Moreno, a political scientist at Miami’s Florida International University.

Can something similar happen to this year’s Republican, another honorable man and war hero with a quirky sense of humor?

This week's national survey by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that Barack Obama held a sizable lead among Hispanic registered voters, leading John McCain by 66 percent to 23 percent.

That’s Dole numbers, surprising for a Republican from Arizona, a state with a large Hispanic population that gave McCain a majority in his most recent race for Senate. Even more surprising: among Cuban-Americans, the poll claimed, Obama was up 53 percent to 28 percent.

Now, there are many Cuban-Americans — including Cuban-Americans who once or maybe even twice voted for George W. Bush — who have come to believe the current administration has wreaked enormous damage to this country in almost every conceivable way. They believe, like so many others, that a profound transformation in leadership is mandatory to rebuild American power and international prestige.

But 53 percent? Everything I know about Cubans tells me that figure is off. Barack Obama is not going to win the Cuban-American vote, because there simply is too much mistrust, especially among older voters, about his Cuba policy.

The Dole-McCain parallels work sometimes, sometimes not. Both men are coming off primary seasons in which the far right of their party demonized Hispanics. Both candidates also know that to win, they can’t disregard the vociferously anti-immigrant GOP base.

But McCain is much more Hispanic-savvy than Dole was. He is trying a balancing act Dole never attempted. McCain has television spots in Spanish, runs a Spanish-language campaign Web site, and has gone not only to Miami’s Calle Ocho, where it’s easy for Republicans, but has also spoken to Democrat-leaning, Mexican-American-dominated organizations like the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza.

McCain, however, has one burden Dole never had: the enormous unpopularity of a sitting Republican president. It’s gotten so bad that according to a poll in early July by Bendixen & Associates, the incumbent Miami congressional Republican brothers Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart, once thought unbeatable, are barely leading their moderate Democratic Cuban-American opponents, Raúl Martínez and Joe García.

Yet the same poll claimed that among Miami Cubans, Obama has Dole-like numbers: 21 percent support him.

I don’t believe it any more than the 53 percent in the Pew poll. My sense is that enough Cubans have turned against Republicans to put Obama in the place Clinton was in 1992: He’s got a shot at 40 percent. Which happens to be the number McCain is shooting for, nationally, among Hispanics.

Nationally, of course, other Hispanics do not much care about Cuba policy, and they are traditionally Democratic to begin with. Add to that the anger about GOP xenophobic rantings, even though nobody thinks of McCain as part of the anti-immigrant crowd (including, significantly, the anti-immigrant crowd).

Also add the lackluster performance of the McCain campaign — the maverick of 2000 may have had a chance against Obama’s political superstar, but eight years later McCain is reduced to a technophobe fuddy-duddy given to foreign-policy gaffes, mouthing Republican boilerplate from the Reagan era, and embarrassing himself with the pathetically feeble Paris-Britney-Barack comparison. And add the $20 million the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee announced this week they’d spend going after Hispanic voters.

At this point, there are no political developments visible in the horizon to help John McCain win more than 30 percent of the national Hispanic vote. Better than Dole, but not enough to win the Hispanic-heavy swing states of Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.