Racial identification

Read a fascinating article in the Fall 2007 edition of the Du Bois Review. In an article “The New Latin Nation”, Alejandro Portes made the very interesing, and ironic, point that whereas in the past, much Mexican immigration to the US was cyclical, in the last few decades the tighter border controls have made it permanent. The controls are failing to stop people from coming in, but are making them less likely to go back. So they settle permanently, have families, move to different parts of the country. The article was looking at the second generation, born in the US. It made the point that whereas previous generations of European immigrants could slowly work their way up the economic ladder through the large industrial workforce, now those opportunities are largely gone. The US economy is an “hourglass” shape, with a top tier of educated high-income earners and a bottom tier of low-wage manual labourers, and a very narrow neck connecting the two, increasingly difficult to squeeze through.

The following table shows how the 17-year-old children of immigrants perceive themselves racially, compated with their parents’ self-identification.

Nationality – Cuban

White: Parent 93.1%, child 41.2%
Black: Parent 1.1%, child 0.8%
Asian: Parent 0.3%, child 0%
Multiracial: Parent 2.5%, child 11.5%
Other: Parent 1.4%, child 4.5%
Hispanic/Latino: Parent 1.1%, child 36.0%
Cuban: Parent 0.5%, child 5.5%

Nationality: Mexican

White: Parent 5.7%, child 1.5%
Black: Parent 0%, child 0%
Asian: Parent 2.1%, child 0%
Multiracial: Parent 21.6%, child 12.0%
Other: Parent 28.5%, child 4.5%
Hispanic/Latino: Parent 15.9%, child 25.5%
Mexican: Parent 26.1%, child 56.2%

Nationality: Nicaraguan

White: Parent 67.7%, child 19.4%
Black: Parent 0.5%, child 0.8%
Asian: Parent 1.6%, child 0%
Multiracial: Parent 22.0%, child 9.7%
Other: Parent 2.2%, child 6.5%
Hispanic/Latino: Parent 5.4%, child 61.8%
Nicaraguan: Parent 0.5%, child 2.7%

Other Latin American

White: Parent 69.5%, child 22.8%
Black: Parent 4.6%, child 1.9%
Asian: Parent 0.8%, child 0%
Multiracial: Parent 17.8%, child 14.7%
Other: Parent 3.1%, child 3.1%
Hispanic/Latino: Parent 2.3%, child 52.9%
National origin: Parent 1.9%, child 4.6%

I found this table absolutely amazing. The differences between parent and child racial self-identification are huge! What strike me the most are the huge numbers of parents who thought they were white, and the fact that their children, who grew up in “one-drop-rule” America, have been completely disabused of that notion. They have taken on the categorisations imposed on them by American racial norms. Their parents predominantly rejected the identity “Latino” or “Hispanic” but the children take it on in big numbers. Portes calls this a “hardening” of Hispanic identity in the second generation. Also interesting is that 56.2% of second-generation Mexicans chose “Mexican” — as their racial identity, remember. This is a reflection of American racism, which marks “Mexicans” out as different just as it does to “blacks”. Identity forms and hardens around this ignorance. The parents might have viewed themselves as white, but the children, growing up in the reality of the USA, could not possibly hold that view. They were marked out from an early age as “Hispanics” or “Latinos” or “Mexicans”.

On a wider level it is an illustration of how fluid racial categories are, how much they are shaped by social forces in particular societies. Yet still, for so many people, race retains that vestige of scientific legitimacy. This is particularly the case in the USA, where — despite all the mixing, or perhaps because of it — racial rules are fixed and inflexible. In theory, Barack Obama could identify himself as “white” with just as much justification as identifying as black, but to an American it would be impossible. Even the category of mixed race or biracial is not widely recognised. The old rule still applies – to be white, you have to be “pure” white. One drop of black blood and you are black. I wonder how long this nonsense will continue.