Monday, September 26, 2005

How Richard Nixon Invented Hispanics

Update: I found out that Mark Levin mentioned this post on June 16, 2014, so I welcome visitors who found this post that way.  I've moved on to other things and haven't updated this blog in years, but this was always my most widely viewed post.
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In a press release in 2003, the Bureau of the Census announced with great fanfare that "Hispanics" had become the largest minority group in the U.S. As they are also at great pains to clarify, Hispanics, unlike "blacks" and "Asians," are not a "race.".

And yet they must be something, else no one would pressure the government to count them. And the story of how something called "Hispanics" came to be an objective reality worth measuring is a fascinating lesson in the economics of tribal self-identification. "Hispanics" are readily identifiable in the U.S. But as soon as one crosses the Rio Grande from the north there is no such thing as "Hispanic." There are instead races: "whites," and "Indians," and mestizos, and "blacks," and all of the above together. And there are nationalities: Dominicans, and Salvadorans, and Hondurans, and Mexicans and Brazilians. But in the United States these disparate nations and people, who sometimes go to war at least proximately because of soccer games and who argue over the racial stereotyping in their television soap operas, through the waving of a bureaucratic wand in an obscure office at the end of an obscure hall in Washington magically become a single demographic group. So too with "Asian," whose official definition as of 2002 was a masterpiece of bureaucratic obfuscation masquerading as clarification:

"Asian" refers to those having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam. "Pacific Islander" refers to those having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands. The Asian and Pacific Islander population is not a homogeneous group; rather, it comprises many groups who differ in language, culture, and length of residence in the United States. Some of the Asian groups, such as the Chinese and Japanese, have been in the United States for several generations. Others, such as the Hmong, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, are comparatively recent immigrants. Relatively few of the Pacific Islanders are foreign born.


The immigrant from China or Korea on the one hand and Japan or Vietnam on the other must be mystified that, when he arrives in the U.S., he is placed in the same demographic category as those whose genetic lineage is traced to countries recently at war with his own. But such is the nature of tribal politics in the U.S. (and, because of its influence, in other multi-tribal Western democracies too) these days. Everyone must be pigeonholed, the pigeonholing must be by physical appearance, and the government will tell you which compartment is yours.

This is all an artifact of decisions taken during the first Nixon Administration. The terms "Hispanic" and "Asian/Pacific Islander" have their origins in a term first placed on the 1970 Census form during the Nixon Administration, and sought in the case of "Hispanic" to unite those with nothing in common other than backgrounds vaguely related to countries where the Spanish language is important. It is not strictly a geographic term, identifying people from Latin America and the Caribbean. While Dominicans, who speak Spanish, and Brazilians, who speak Portuguese, are Hispanic, Haitians, who speak French and Creole, and Jamaicans, who speak English, are not. (And whether this vague type of person should be called "Hispanic" or "Latino" is an absurd and impenetrable controversy all its own.) The decision to invent Hispanics has had profound effects on American culture.

In any society (certainly including ours) where people can organize to pressure the government to transfer income from other groups to theirs, the question arises of what shared characteristics to organize the group around. People can organize around vague notions of race (the NAACP or La Raza), around occupation (small-business owner or farmer), around whether they are left- or right-handed, or any other criterion. But the criteria around which they do choose to organize is, in the economic way of thinking, a function of the marginal costs of organizing each type of group. One reason labor unions are such a powerful force in many societies of all income levels and many forms of governments is that they are easy to organize, with many of the potential constituents converging to the same workplace every day. Groups organized around tribe form relatively easily as well because it is easy to tell who is and is not a member, and the tendency of people to socialize based on common language, church membership or other criteria also lowers these organizational transaction costs.

But what is striking about recent years is the ability of government decisions to create artificial identities. This is in part presumably because in a democratic political system bigger numbers, other things equal, can mean bigger influence. The notion of what it means to be "white" has itself undergone dramatic transformation over time. The term once connoted primarily northern Europeans – people descended from residents of the British Isles, Scandinavia, (non-Jewish) Germany, and the like – with those considered eminently “white” now – people with last names like Rosselli and Papadopoulos – previously consigned to a sub-"white" basement, not quite "black" but not quite Smith or Johnson either.

To get a sense of how artificial it all is, note that some Japanese consider Persians and Arabs to be "white," something utterly preposterous to many people who actually call themselves "white." Are Jews “white”? They are now, but once upon a time they were not. The media sometimes acts as if, because of their successful integration (which "Hispanic" immigrants are rapidly duplicating)," "Asians" already are. When the government is counting people, President Bush’s first-term Labor Secretary nominee, Linda Chavez, is “Hispanic.” But when she is asked to serve in government, she is, because the “Chavez” in “Linda Chavez” comes from her ancestors who came to New Mexico from Spain in the 1600s, not Hispanic enough.

By defining phenomena called "Hispanic" and "Asian," the government of the U.S. is subsidizing a particular basis for both tribal identification specifically and presure-group formation more generally. What makes this arbitrariness so troubling is the ability of the state through its decisions to promote tribal tensions that might otherwise not be there. Imagine a hypothetical American named John Kim. He is the native-born grandson of Korean immigrants, an accountant, the married father of three children, a Roman Catholic, a Dallas Cowboys fan, and a bowler. So what is he? If asked, he would probably define himself by all these criteria simultaneously. But in modern America, with tribal identity more and more the primary engine of political engagement, he is probably inclined to think of himself primarily as Korean or, even more artificially, as "Asian." And so when bad things happen to him in life he may be more likely to think that it is a result of his "Asian-ness" rather than to the rain that occasionally falls on all of us. By inventing Asians and Hispanics/Latinos, President Nixon subsidized the organization out of thin air of a brand-new ethnic identity, and the creation of "Asian" and "Hispanic" pressure groups in every sphere of American life has proceeded correspondingly. That is too bad, because accountancy and bowling are aspects of identification over which one has control, while tribal identities are encoded in the genes and therefore more difficult to overcome. When society divides along tribal lines, it becomes harder to reconcile competing factions than when they are divided along lines not so easily transmitted from parent to child.

Richard Rodriguez, in his wonderful book Brown, wonders how long it takes a Bolivian immigrant to become a "Hispanic." He argues that when she arrives she will be thrown in with "...Mayan Indians from the Yucatán,…Argentine tangoistas, Colombian drug dealers, and Russian Jews who remember Cuba from the viewpoint of Miami." He offers the following definition of this only-in-America term:

Hi.spa.nick 1. Spanish, adjective. 2. Latin American, adjective. 3. Hispano, noun. An American citizen or resident of Spanish descent. 4. Ducking under the cyclone fence, noun. 5. Seen running from the scene of the crime, adjective. Clinging to a raft off the Florida coast. Elected mayor in New Jersey. Elevated to bishop or traded to the San Diego Padres. Awarded the golden pomegranate by the U.S. Census Bureau: “most fertile.” Soon, an oxymoron: America’s largest minority. An utter absurdity: “destined to outnumber blacks.” A synonym for the future (salsa having replaced catsup on most American kitchen tables). Madonna’s daughter. Sammy Sosa’s son. A jillarioso novel about ten sisters, their sorrows and joys and intrauterine devices. The new face of American Protestantism: Evangelical minister, tats on his arm; wouldn’t buy a used car from. Highest high school dropout rate; magical realism.


Rodriguez is writing approvingly of a society where tribal identity is becoming more confused, making the old categories less relevant and the new ones more dynamic, shorter-lived and hence more interesting. This will be true as long as he has not underestimated the power of tribal subsidy (e.g., via the census form, or tribal preferences in university admissions, tribal appeals by politicians running for office, etc.) to define the relative rates of return to the various ways of defining ourselves. One could suppose that the moral ideal of a multi-tribal society is that it become a post-tribal society, one where tribal identity is utterly irrelevant in how we trade and how we vote. (At least on religious grounds, it’s not clear that tribe would or should become irrelevant in how we marry, but on ethnic grounds perhaps it should.) And, given the rate at which our immigrants, who are the world in miniature, are living, working, marrying and conceiving inter-tribally, it is possible that the emotional and material benefits of annihilating tribal lines will override the political incentives and, occasionally, biological urges to build them up. Possible, but no sure thing. It is a race between those who are taking hammers to the walls and those who are for their own reasons busy building them.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Frodo said...

A very good article, and a major concern in US society today. It's ironic that Nixon, as you say, essentially created this new ethnic group where before, it really had not gelled, with people from different Latin American countries really not adopting a common identity but regarding themselves as Venezuelans, Colombians, Panamanians and so on. (And what's with the term "Latino"? My Irish relatives are Catholic and sometimes attend a Latin mass-- does this make them "Latino"?)

This would all be idle talk if not for the fact that Nixon's "Hispanic" classification has a very real-world significance in the form of affirmative action, with millions of people gaining who knows how many billions worth of contracts and university positions (sometimes at the expense of others outside the tribe) by virtue of checking that box on a form. One of Nixon's lesser-known but more significant (and bumbling) moves in his office.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mexican for one are not Hispanic or Latinos, but indigenous- in fact, more indigenous in numbers and blood than "Native Americans" who aside from Alaskan natives and Polynesians (but not Puerto Ricans-hmmmmm) are for the most are not "pure" indigenous but also have Anglo, French, Spanish, and other European blood. In fact, (and it's a fact folks) the Mexican population is 30% PURE indigenous and the other 60% are predominately indigenous and Spaniard, while the total American population again including Alaska, Hawaii, but again, not including Puerto Rico is ONLY 1.6% indigenous- and most of those "Native Americans" are also "mestizo" having chiefly British, French, and Spanish blood. So why call us Latinos and Hispanics? ITS SIMPLE- to keep us "foreigners", "immigrants", and to keep us from our rightful place not only in this country, but throughout this continent. "Latinos" are immediately relegated with immigrants the same way if not even made more foreign than far away immigrants from the other side of the planet Russia, China, Philippines, Africa, etc., yet Mexicans who again, are chiefly indigenous, and are a threat to those who know this to be true, are made foreigners in our own ancestral homeland. Indigenous people are not immigrants, but migrants who have flowed like water for centuries and come from the north just as much as from the south. We have not just been in this side of the globe for a few generations or centuries which Anglos and others can say, but are indigenous and go back thousands of years, which no one else can say. If others dare to claim they are just as indigenous as we, than we should rightfully claim that our ancestral homeland is in the primmest real estate in Europe and Africa, and maybe we could “colonize” there as well. The view is a myth and incorrect, that only U.S. government recognized "Native Americans" from Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Maine, Florida, and Caifornia have a birthright to go and come anywhere throughout the U.S., but not an indigenous person from 1 inch inside the Mexican border (created by Anglos).

Sources of U.S./Mexican indigenous demographics: United State Central Intelligence Agency “World factbook”.
Also look up "All Of Mexico Movement" and "Manifest Destiny"

RM, The People's Channel

5:22 PM  

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