Latinos, Race, and Outmarriage

February 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

Earlier this week, Jorge Rivas published an article on Colorlines outlining some of the results of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project. As Rivas reports, the study illustrates that Latinos and Asians have the highest rates of intermarriage in the US at over 25% for each group. For many this appears to reinforce the idea of the United States as a true “melting pot.” We are a diverse society, and the fact that Americans are increasingly willing to marry others from different backgrounds is a sign of progress, no?

First, I’ll agree that American society is changing. We, Americans, appear much more open to intercultural and interracial partnerships today than in the mid and late 20th Century. My personal opinion is that eliminating social, economic, and political restrictions to equality is generally a good thing. However, the ways that Rivas and others such as the WSJ’s Miriam Jordan talk about these demographic shifts omit complicated realities that may give a better sense of how American society is working to become the land of diversity and equality. Focusing on Latinos as an ethnic category may expose some of the complications with using demographic data to tell the story of America’s melting pot.

Latino has not existed as a ethnic category for a terribly long time. Although individuals frequently think of race and ethnicity as unchanging categories, historical examination shows that this is far from the truth. Scholars such as Karen Brodkin and David Roediger have examined how European immigrant groups such as Italians, Irish, and others eventually became identified as White after long periods of racial subordination in America. Academics such as Juan Flores and Miriam Jiménez Román have argued that the social category, Latino, largely came to be during the late 20th Century. Moreover, the emergence of a Spanish-speaking communities linked to Latin-America in US marketing played a great role in constructing today’s notion of the Latino as a single group. In other words, the idea that Dominicans, Argentines, and Mexicans might constitute a people is a new American concept.

In addition, Americans frequently conflate racial and ethnic identity. For instance, Ramón Grosfoguel argued that racialization of Latinos and other immigrating ethnic groups has commonly occurred as they settle and undergo marginalization in the US. He believed that focusing on “racial/ethnic” identity was a much more helpful than treating race and ethnicity as autonomous categories. Although immigrant groups are commonly identified by ethnicity, Grosfuguel found that they frequently underwent subordination, suffering from racial discrimination. Moreover, these experiences of racialization influence the degree and types of interactions between members of American communities.

While many individuals think of Latino as an important ethnic/racial identity in the US, socio-racial hiearchies are markedly different throughout the Americas. Nor should we understate Latin America’s racial diversity. With cultural backgrounds greatly shaped by Spanish and Portuguese colonization, the French, English, and Dutch influenced sizable communities throughout the region. Latin American societies were much more open to racial mixing than their North American counterparts, and many nations embraced ideas like mestizaje as they distanced themselves from Spanish rulers. Nonetheless, large Afro-descendent, Indigenous, German, and Italian communities exist in the many countries throughout the region. Should we embrace using a single racializing term to reduce all these cultural influences and disparate experiences?

American society is deeply invested in racial categories such as Black and White. Although some argue that we live in a post-racial society, we know that race influences political rhetoric. We know that race is a significant factor in determining jail sentences. We know that race plays a role in an individual chance of attending a high school that graduates over 3/4 of its students. Why would we assume that race in the United States no longer works in this way when individuals claim Latin American origin? Should we differentiate between German-Mexican-Americans and German-Americans? What about German-Mexican-Americans and other Mexican-Americans?

In addition, official classifications of race in the US have been criticized for quite some time. According to many, racial/ethnic groups listed on demographic forms (on job applications, school admissions forms, and the US Census) do not allow many individuals to adequately identify themselves. For example, it is not uncommon for questionnaires to use “non-black Hispanic” as the only option for denoting latino origin. This denies Afro-Latinos recognition and frequently omits them from official documentation.

I, for one, remember listening to my mother’s stories about Black hair products in the 1960s. She described boxes of relaxers with copy written in English and Spanish for products sold throughout the United States. My mother had learned that Black girls from her native Virginia were combing kinks from their hair just like their Spanish-speaking counterparts in Northern cities such as New York. The early 20th Century saw Afro Caribbean communities (with Dominicans, Cubans, Jamaicans, Haitians, and Puerto Ricans) grow along-side and within Black American communities.

Ultimately, the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project helps uncover important information about ourselves. Given the ways that many Americans like Rivas and Jordan choose to interpret the data, we can presume that a mixed America is evidence of American progress. This may be the case. However, have we not been a mixed society for some time? Might our methods of study obscure the intercultural and inter-racial associations that have defined many American communities for much of the last century?

It is important to note the new ways that we define ourselves in America. We may be increasingly open to living in mixed communities–more than ever before. Still, we should be aware that monocultures do not exist. Americans never existed without cultural exchange. Erasing communities from our shared history does nothing to bring us closer to the progressive future we hope to reach.

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§ 2 Responses to Latinos, Race, and Outmarriage

  • William Conwill says:

    Elegantly stated, nuanced and practical in these days when so many people thoughtlessly denigrate those who do not look like their ilk of “Americans” or who resemble the “usual suspects”. This brief critique should be required reading for anyone interested in legitimate study of the American Experience.

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