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The Problem With The “Hispanics Will Become White” Argument

A few progressive bloggers have reacted positively to former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s recent comments to the Wall Street Journal on Hispanic immigrants' willingness to assimilate:

One problem for Republicans, [Bush] says, is that "the tone of our message is one of 'them and us' sometimes." At least that's what gets "magnified in the press," with immigration policy being the flash point. It's "a shame," he says, because Republicans and immigrants have a lot in common. "But if you send a signal that we really don't want you as part of our team, they're not going to join." …With regard to assimilation, he says, Hispanics have much to be proud of. "Second-generation Hispanics marry non-Hispanics at a higher rate than second-generation Irish or Italians. Second-generation Hispanics' English language capability rates are higher than previous immigrant groups'."

In response, Jamelle Bouie from TAPPED says, "I'm not sure if it's a good sales pitch, but it's basically the truth. Hispanics, like Italians and Irish before them, are on the path to becoming 'white,' and as intermarriage rates increase–and the racial divide moves from white/black to non-black/black–odds are good that the children of these unions will be perceived as white." Others agree.

They're giving Bush too much credit, though: He's not actually addressing race. He's just talking about the successful economic assimilation of recent Hispanic immigration, not the very real racial divide that certain anti-Hispanic nativists in his party, like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, have exploited for political gain.

Hispanics, after all, aren't one race. That's why there's a separate question for them on the Census! Many Hispanic immigrants are white, even without their parents having intermarried with non-Hispanics. Many of them are of African descent. The majority are mestizo, a word used in Latin America to refer to anyone of mixed European and Native heritage. Throughout its history, the United States has seen myriad immigrant groups from different Latin American countries, each characterized by distinct racial balances. The wave of Mexican immigration over the past three decades that has so politicized the immigration issue mostly comes from very mestizo Southern Mexico.

It's instructive that the Irish and the Italians are the examples of immigrant assimilation that Bush uses. What about East and South Asian immigration, or Arab immigration? It would be hard to make a case that any of these groups, who have all had distinctly successful economic assimilation histories, are considered or will ever be considered "white." Generally, the people we call white are descended from Europeans. White Hispanics are no exception. Therefore while it’s heartening that there are Republicans willing to praise the successful assimilation of Hispanic immigrants, the underlying political issue that remains unexplored by members of the GOP is their party’s continued reliance on racial polarization as an electoral strategy. Even as successive generations of darker-skinned Hispanics lose their accents and fully assimilate in their own way into American culture and society, they probably still won’t be considered white. The burden will be on the political leaders to steer clear of exploiting the racial divide, instead of hoping that the divide will disappear by itself.

Nicolas Mendoza is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can e-mail him at and follow him on Twitter at @nicmend.

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