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What’s the Matter with Hispanics?

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What’s the Matter with Hispanics?

Latino voters surprised (and disappointed) progressive observers on November 3 because they are more likely to respond to economic issues than identity politics. November 17, 2020
Politics and law

To no one’s surprise, a majority—63 percent—of Hispanics voted for Joe Biden for president on November 3. Yet the Hispanic vote still has the pundit world in a tizzy. About a third of them decided that the man who spent four years insulting their Spanish-speaking homelands and landsmen was preferable to a diversity-embracing opponent with a fondness for the Latin pop hit “Despacito” and a textbook-perfect intersectional running mate.

In truth, Donald Trump improved his percentage of the Hispanic vote by only four points over his showing against Hillary Clinton 2016, but even that modest gain befuddled most everyone embracing—or resigned to—the “emerging Democratic majority.” Hispanics were supposed to be redrawing the electoral map by turning Florida and Texas blue; instead, Biden carried Miami Dade county by only seven points compared with Clinton’s 30-point win, thereby killing the Dems’ Florida dream. Hispanics in the poor, immigrant border counties of Texas were even more of a surprise. Hillary Clinton’s 60-point margin in Starr County in 2016 vaporized into a mere five-point win for Joe Biden. It was the largest swing to Trump of any county in the United States. Hillary took nearby Zapata County by 33 points in 2016; this year Trump won it by six. Hispanic support for the anti-immigration, border-wall-obsessed president increased in New Mexico, Colorado, and Georgia. Even in true-blue Massachusetts, a surprising number of Latinos gave Trump a thumbs up. As Tim Carney observed in the Washington Examiner, Trump improved his performance by 21 points in Lawrence, a once white, working-class factory and mill town now 80 percent Hispanic and 40 percent foreign-born.

Hispanic consultants and politicos blamed strategic and tactical flaws for the Democrats’ disappointment. The most talked-about Hispanic politician in the country, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, slammed the party in the New York Times for not investing more in digital advertising or doing more “anti-racist, deep canvassing”—intense, personal conversations with putatively racist voters. That is exactly wrong. The Hispanic desertion, modest as it might be, is a warning sign for Democrats not about tactics but about the weakness of their “Latinx” creed.

Hispanic support for the crude logic of identity politics has always been tepid. Julian Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and U.S. housing secretary, was the only Hispanic to enter the Democratic primary in 2019. He expected that he would have a solid Hispanic base, but polls never showed him getting more than 7 percent of the Hispanic vote. A significant number of Hispanics have balked at the idea of being shunted into a box marked “people of color.” In the 2010 census, 2.5 million of them described themselves as Hispanic and white. While “Latino,” an attempt to overthrow the colonialist implications of the label “Hispanic,” has become a part of the American vernacular, the more recent enlightened neologism, “Latinx,” has been about as tempting as a soggy tostada. An August Pew Research survey found a paltry 3 percent of “Latinx” actually use the word, and three out of four had never even heard of it. A few days before the election, a follower tweeted to Ruben Gallego, a liberal Democrat congressman in a heavily Hispanic working-class district around Phoenix, “Ruben, honest question, how do we as a party improve our work with the LatinX community across the country as well as we’ve done in AZ?” Gallego’s acid response? “First, start by not using the term Latinx.”

Though bureaucrats, politicians, college admissions officers, and executives at Univision have had good reason to pretend otherwise, Hispanics are not a “monolith,” nor are they neatly packaged as “people of color.” Up until the 1970s, the largest groups from Spanish-speaking countries—Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Cubans—lived in different regions of the U.S. They didn’t have much to do with one another and, not knowing what else to do, the Census Bureau simply classified them as white. Seeing the success of the Civil Rights movement, in the late 1960s Mexican-American activists began lobbying for more data on their fellows and proposed a Census category of “Brown.” Since the race of these groups varied, eventually, the government settled on Hispanic.

Mexicans remain by far the largest Hispanic group in the U.S., but today they have been joined by people from a wide range of countries. Pew lists 15 different Spanish-speaking nations with significant-sized populations in the United States. Those countries often have a big enough claim on the expatriate imagination to make a convenient mega-identity an awkward fit. “I only learned I was a Latina in the last few years,” editor Isvett Verde wrote in the New York Times. “I still don’t know what that means. Growing up, I thought of myself as Cuban, or maybe Caribbean.”

In the past decade, Venezuelans, Argentinians, and Colombians, along with a renewed surge of Cubans and Dominicans, once again have changed the complexion of the category. They all may come from Spanish-speaking countries, but their inter-group connections are hazy. Castro-spooked Cubans and Maduro-hating Venezuelans are on a different political wavelength than anti-abortion Mexican evangelicals or Argentinian Latino Studies professors. Moreover, class differences among Hispanics are every bit as salient as they are for whites. High school-dropout dishwashers and home health-care workers see their adopted country with completely different eyes than college-educated, Goya-boycotting wokesters. In one Pew survey, 61 percent of second-generation Hispanics said that they consider themselves “a typical American.” I think about my former neighbor, the computer-technician son of Puerto Rican parents; he married a white social worker and is now raising his children in a predominantly white suburb. He’s not unusual. Hispanic have high rates of intermarriage; 39 percent of U.S. born Hispanics intermarry, most of them to white partners.

Of course, appealing to ancestral and regional loyalties is a time-honored practice in the multiracial, multicultural hurly burly of American politics, and it’s not going away anytime soon. But todays woke-style identity politics takes the variegated Hispanic story well beyond the all-too-human affection for inherited roots. “People of color” all struggle under the same boot of white supremacy, says the Tao of identity politics. But when Hispanic voters didn’t respond to that message, “Latinx” enthusiasts were left with nothing other than an ill-equipped ideological toolkit. “All of this to me points to the power of the white patriarchy and the coattail it has of those who depend on it or aspire to it,” concluded Times columnist Charles Blow. “Some people who have historically been oppressed will stand with the oppressors, and will aspire to power by proximity.”

This framing shapes the way the media and much of the political class define “Hispanic issues.” Harsh immigration policies and the racism allegedly behind them are the do-or-die topics, despite evidence that Hispanics are more likely to think that the U.S. has too many immigrants, not too few. “Growing up in El Paso, immigration or the Border Patrol didn’t control my life, even when you could see Juárez from our backyard, explains Perla Trevizo, the Mexican border reporter for ProPublica. “That’s not what my parents talked about at the kitchen table. They worried about paying the mortgage and making sure we graduated.” Other post-election reports from the Texas border counties struck similar chords. “There’s a lot of parallels between a community that’s 96% Hispanic and a [lower-income] community that’s 96% white,” Freddy Guerra, a former mayor in the area, told the Wall Street Journal. “Racism is not something that people deal with in Starr County because everybody’s brown. Climate change isn’t something they feel. They prefer bread on the table.”

What escapes commentators like Charles Blow is a simple truth: like all immigrants from the dawn of the republic, Hispanics come to the U.S. looking for economic opportunity. Enough of them succeed in finding it to keep a steady stream of strivers lining up at the border. A 2018 study from Raj Chetty and coauthors concluded that Hispanic rates of upward mobility are nearer to those of whites than those of blacks or Native Americans, and they’re on track to close much of the remaining gap in the future. At all levels of education, blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to say that they are better off than their parents were. Younger Hispanics carry on a long tradition of immigrant optimism in the U.S. Second-generation Hispanics tend to agree—and more than Americans as a whole—that you can get ahead if you work hard.

So should we expect to see a lot more Hispanics jump into the Republican camp? That would be going too far. America’s promise of upward mobility and opportunity is shaky at this economically turbulent moment, particularly for those with little education. Hispanic poverty rates remain high, though immigration from poverty-ridden countries complicates that picture. As I’ve argued, there are good reasons to be worried about the prospects of many third-generation Hispanics.

But one thing is clear: if Hispanics’ flirtation with the red side reverses, it won’t be because they finally accept their place as members of a “people of color” coalition. It will be because more are going to college and entering the middle class. The divide between red and blue is increasingly between non-college-educated and college-educated voters. The number of Hispanics in college has tripled since 2000, and the largest increase has been in four-year college attendance. Today’s newcomers are also more educated than previous arrivals. A quarter of Hispanics who immigrated in the past five years, many from Spain, Venezuela, and Argentina, have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Young women are the most likely of the population to have gone to college.

It’s no coincidence that young women are also the most likely to signal their status by calling themselves “Latinx.” The 2016 election confirmed that Democrats are the party of the college-educated, while Republicans increasingly represent the working class. Surprisingly, 2020’s lesson is that the Republican working class is not just white.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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