A strange meme circulates, perhaps begun by Geraldo Rivera’s White Hispanic, Yellow Journalism, but it’s now all over the media. It goes like this: George Zimmerman is not really white, he’s Hispanic, and so the [liberal, race-baiting] Main Stream Media [MSM] invented “White Hispanic.” And if Zimmerman’s White Hispanic, does that make President Obama a White Black? Hahaha. #LiberalLogic Gotcha!
Rivera’s account is not completely inaccurate, it’s just a bit twisted and incorrect. First, the claim that “White Hispanic” is a completely made-up term for the Zimmerman trial should be news to the more than 26 million people who in 2010 marked in as White Hispanic on the US Census form–the categories for Hispanic yes/no and race are both separate and both mandatory, as they have been since at least the 1980 Census. Second, as of 2000, people like Obama could indeed check in as White Black on the US Census–however, understanding this issue means knowing about the traditional US framework of hypodescent. Finally, Rivera’s claim that the Hispanic immigrant experience is different from the Irish and Italian one–that Latinos will transform the US racial landscape–is intriguing but unsupported. If anything, the move seems to be toward a Hispanic White/Black bifurcation.
George Zimmerman was White before he was Hispanic
As Chris Escalante has been tirelessly tweeting, both the initial police report on Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman arrest warrant simply list Zimmerman as White. There is no indication Zimmerman said anything like “I’m not white, I’m Hispanic,” or protested his classification and treatment as a white male. It seems rather that the shout, “but he’s Hispanic!” was introduced by the defense team.
After that, some people began referring to Zimmerman as White Hispanic. But this is not a newly invented category. It dates to at least the 1970 US Census and has been firmly in place since 1980–separate mandatory questions for Hispanic origins and then a separate mandatory race question.
As Rivera notes, “Hispanics can be black, brown, red, or white.” But as of 2010 in the United States, 53% of Hispanics self-identified as white on the census. That percentage seems to have grown since 2000, when only 47.9% of Hispanics self-identified as white on the US Census.
White Hispanic is not a new category. It was not made up by the media. And in contrast to Rivera’s claim, the White Hispanic category seems to be one that is increasing–both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the Hispanic population. Zimmerman’s racial classification as white might be related to his parental heritage, but even if both parents were Peruvian, Zimmerman might have identified as White Hispanic. In other words, it is not necessarily a “mixed race” category. For that, it’s time for President Obama.
President Obama could have checked White Black (as of 2000) but chose Black–It’s Hypodescent
Before the 2000 Census, people could fill in only one race label. And the traditional US rule, often enforced by law, is that anyone with black ancestry is considered black. No mixed-race category like mestizo, no two boxes. The technical term for this system is hypodescent.
As of 2000, people have been allowed to check more than one race box. Note that this option has nothing to do with the Hispanic yes/no descent–this is the 2010 US Census form–the options were the same in 2000. Obama actually had more than a dozen options in responding to Question 9, about race. Obama chose to remain within the framework of hypodescent, but this was hardly a strange choice.
What’s particularly rich here is that in practice conservatives are more likely than liberals to identify mixed-race individuals as Black. That is, conservatives are more likely to lump mixed-race people into hypodescent categories. Conservatives have also been more likely to portray President Obama as darker skinned and to emphasize that Obama is black or African-American. And now, they are the same people laughing about the “White Black” thing–which is something most liberals already knew about! After all, how did they miss Chris Rock’s Message for White Voters?
I suppose the peculiar glee with which people announce their new-found gotcha knowledge that Obama is White Black is a bit more excusable–after all, only 1.8 million people marked in as White Black on the 2010 US Census, far fewer than the 26.7 million people marking in as White Hispanic. However, the White Black combination was the single most prevalent pick for those choosing more than one race, at 20.4% of the two or more races population. Now, anthropology can of course maintain that race is a cultural construction superimposed on biological variation, but making that case often becomes a goldmine for conservative politics.
Still, it’s pretty interesting to see the people who had been playing up Obama-as-Black or Obama as African-American are now doing a turnabout to play up Obama-as-White. Again, most liberals already knew that, and were more likely to know that about Obama. Indeed, for the left-of-liberal crowd, Obama is often criticized for governing as more White than Black–not as an essentialized race category, but simply to say that his policies have tended to support the status quo, buttress capitalism, enhance the security state apparatus, and extend military action abroad. For example, see the Maximilian Forte twitter response to statements like Trayvon Martin, Race and Anthropology by American Anthropological Association President Leith Mullings.
Probationary Whites–or “a new quasi-race is being born”?
My previous analysis of census figures in Race Remixed? investigated Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s statement:
What matters here is how the changing construction of whiteness intersects with the maintenance of a white/black divide that structures all race relations in the United States. Whether significant numbers of the people now called Latinos or Asian Americans–or the significant numbers of their known “mixed” offspring with whites–will become probationary whites and thus reinforce the structure is an important indicator of the future of race relations in the United States. (Trouillot 2003:151, Global Transformations)
My preliminary analysis indicated present trends from Latinos pointed to a white/black divide, a growing bifurcation in the Latino population which would indeed reinforce the structure.
Rivera claims the opposite, saying that the longer Latinos live in the United States the less likely they are to identify as white:
What makes this so intriguing is that it is in sharp contrast to the experiences of previous immigrants from Italy and Ireland, and the European Jews, who campaigned aggressively against being classified as “other” and insisted on being incorporated into the white category.
Essentially, a new quasi-race is being born that mimics the days of “Black is Beautiful.” In the same way African-Americans overcame the color prejudice within their community by rejecting skin tone as the definer of who is or is not “black,” we Latinos are following suit.
It’s an interesting claim, but given the US Census numbers, it seems dubious at best. As mentioned above, the percentage of Hispanics checking White-only increased from 47.9% in 2000 to 53.0% in 2010. Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanics checking “some other race” decreased from 42.2% in 2000 to 36.7% in 2010. The percentage of Hispanics reporting two or more races fell slightly, from 6.3% to 6.0%, while there was a slight increase in the percentage checking Black Hispanic, from 2.0 to 2.5% (compare Table 10 in 2000 with Table 2 in 2010).
Interestingly from 2000-2010, the Hispanic population marking only white or only black for race increased by 5.6%, while the Hispanic population marking some-other-race or more-than-one-race decreased by 5.8%. And this was during a time when there were political efforts to encourage Hispanics to check the some-other-race box, when people like Rivera were already making the transformational claim, and when the US elected its first multi-racial President. It’s also interesting to note that despite the prevalent delusions of anti-white bias, more and more Hispanics see the white category as the best choice. If present trends continue–and it is interesting that in 2010 the percentage of White Hispanics crossed the 50% line–the choice of Hispanic and “some other race” may well become a residual category.
Now, there are many possible reasons for this shift, but it doesn’t seem to be evidence for a new quasi-race. Combine that with the marriage statistics analyzed in Race Remixed? and the research showing similar bifurcation in Puerto Rico, and it looks more like a division into black and probationary white. Moreover, the Zimmerman case itself suggests this bifurcation, as he took it upon himself to police the boundaries of who belonged and who should be accosted.
Admittedly, Rivera’s vision of Latinos transforming the United States may be more optimistic than these numbers suggest. However, Rivera is surely aware that there is a sinister other side to the Latinos-as-transformational vision: the idea that Latinos are essentially non-assimilable. The idea of Hispanics as unable to assimilate is of course part of the fuel for Jason Richwine’s Hispanic IQ thesis. Rivera’s post immediately before the “White Hispanic” does support immigration reform, and Rivera has been outspoken against the non-assimilation idea, but it’s obviously tricky politics.
The point is that true transformation is going to require some serious political organizing, as anthropologist Dana Davis writes in Heavy Hearted and Sick: Responding to the Verdict of Zimmerman or Melanie Bush writes in Time to Connect ALL the Dots. It means finally addressing gun laws, as Charles Blow writes in Standing Our Ground. And it may also require some reflection on the facts about Sanford, Florida, which is a place far more diverse than the US Congress, more diverse than most universities, and certainly more diverse than American Anthropology. In other words, it’s the White Hispanics and the White Black President who help keep most Whites in a comfortable bubble. Put most emphatically,