US Census Should Make Hispanic a Race and Not Just an Ethnicity (OPINION)

Sep 14, 2017
11:34 AM

In 1911, a writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer made a peculiar attempt to assuage the then-brewing racial concerns among segregationist fans of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. The anxiety over race was triggered by the arrival of two Cubans, Armando Marsans and Raphael Almeida, who had recently signed with the Reds making them the first Latinos to participate in Major League Baseball.* As recounted by baseball historian Adrian Burgos, Jr., the Enquirer assured the good people of Cincinnati that they had nothing to fear, for these particular Latinos were “two of the purest bars of Castilian soap that ever floated to these shores.” They may have hailed from Cuba, but their exclusively European ancestry, it was argued, ensured that they posed no threat to a segregated sports regime.

When set against our modern racial frame of reference, the Enquirer’s claim seems almost as bizarre as it is noxious. After all, few people in the United States today would refer to a Cuban as “white” in the context in which that term is currently used. And no portion of the greater Hispanic population is regarded by the American public as part of the white majority of the United States in any meaningful sense. Sure, people generally recognize that Hispanics come from many backgrounds. And yes, as a technical matter, the U.S. Census Bureau reminds us that Hispanics can be of any race. But society has moved past these niceties and quaint bureaucratic disclaimers.   

To glimpse how far society has moved on this issue, one need only compare the staggering number of official government documents that purport to account for a large population of so-called white Hispanics in the U.S with the dearth of actual references to Hispanic white people in our popular culture. Exactly who are these white folks whom the government claims to be counting? If there truly is such an identity as “white Hispanic,” what is the essential distinction between a person who identifies as such and a non-Hispanic white? A last name? Or is there something more to this distinction? Can a Hispanic really be a “white person” as that term is understood today? Why do we use this white Hispanic designation in our official documents?

For many of us with Spanish surnames who live in the United States, it really does seem as though the Hispanic category itself best captures our collective “otherness,” especially in terms of our not fitting neatly into any of the white/black/Native American/Asian racial boxes. We are both a race and a culture fused by language and history into one identity like no other group. Despite the many diverse hues and ancestral ties that contribute to our country’s Hispanic mosaic, it makes the most sense to regard us as having our own racial category, and a move to make this a formal reality is long overdue.

But a nagging thought lingers: How did we get to this state of affairs? Or to put it another way: Why are Hispanics not officially a race? Why don’t we consider the term “white Hispanic” one of the great oxymorons of the 21st century?  Whatever the reasons, this anomaly in ethnoracial classification presents one of the strangest mysteries in our nation’s enduring struggle to define who we are.  And equally fascinating as the present day absurdity of the term “white Hispanic” is the revelation of the near ubiquity of the concept in American society up until just a few decades ago. The idea that one could be both white and Hispanic was quite common for a time in the U.S. and then, like some ill-fated offshoot of Australopithecus, it vanished from the societal fossil record in what seems like the blink of an eye.

The early American story is replete with examples of Hispanics building a life for themselves as vaunted members of the white ruling elite, notably in the sphere of military affairs. Examples such as Jorge Farragut Mesquida (naval officer in the Revolutionary War), his son, David Farragut (first full admiral in the United States Navy), Ambrosio José Gonzales, (Cuban revolutionary who served as a colonel in the Confederate Army and married into a prominent southern family prior to the Civil War) and Luis Fernandez Alvarez (pioneering U.S. medical researcher) come to mind.

Abrosio José Gonzales in Confederate States Army uniform (Public Domain)

Like the odd Italian or eastern European ethnic, the Hispanic merely had to be white (or pass for such) and adopt the language and customs of the U.S. to become an enfranchised citizen. By the end of the 19th century, however, white Hispanic aspirations ran into a serious snag. Large waves of immigrants arriving in the U.S., primarily through Ellis Island, were beginning to rattle the nerves of the WASP establishment. By the early 1920’s, an unsettling number of Americans feared that these immigrant groups, largely from southern and eastern Europe, posed an existential threat to the American way of life. Bigotry and violence against southern Europeans, which had previously been rare and confined to a few distinct locales in the South, were now spreading rapidly throughout the nation. In this volatile climate, aspirations for white Hispanics would have to be deferred.

Eventually, by the 1940’s, Anglo hysteria against southern Europeans had mostly exhausted itself. Fiorello LaGuardia was elected Mayor of New York City, and many others of southern European extraction were elected or elevated to high government offices. White Hispanics could now step out of the shadows and piggyback on the new openness that was being accorded their fellow southern Europeans.

The idea of a white Hispanic identity managed to regain its currency among the wider American culture.  This is evident in the popular entertainment of the early 1950’s with the spectacular success of the television show “I Love Lucy.” Those who are familiar with the program will recall that the two lead characters were played by Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz. Ball played an “all American gal.” Arnaz played her husband, a character who mirrored Arnaz’s real life exploits as a Cuban band leader. Their marriage was not perceived as “interracial” at the time because Arnaz was perceived as white—a Latin white, but white nonetheless.

Yes, by 1951, the white Hispanic had truly arrived. He was one of a few male leads being viewed in nearly every home with a television in America, a bonafide star on the first scripted television show filmed in front of a studio audience. And yet, the clock was ticking on his existence. Some interesting things were brewing in identity politics that would initiate the decline and ultimately the demise of the white Hispanic as a recognizable concept in American society.

Mexican labor groups that had gained great momentum by the 1950s eventually linked up with other Hispanic organizations to form a pan-ethnic identity culminating in the U.S. Census Bureau’s designation of the Hispanic category in 1980. By the early 1980s, just as Italian Americans were achieving near full assimilation into white America, the white Hispanic had all but disappeared, subsumed as a barely noticeable sub-category under the broader Hispanic umbrella.

Race may be, as the courts remind us, an immutable characteristic, but something certainly has mutated among the perception of Americans regarding Hispanics as a people. American societal perceptions have converted what was previously an ethnic category into a racial one. And now that the Hispanic category is perceived as a race itself, additional racial selections on Census forms are, at best, redundant and, at worst, contradictory—especially when the white category is selected.

Indeed, there is something bizarre, if not problematic, about assuming both the mantle of privilege in selecting “white” and the cloak of “color” in selecting Hispanic. That is, to ask one who is nominally a minority (a person of color) if they also want to claim racial privilege is to engage in a cringe-inducing spectacle fraught with extreme historical baggage. As Chris Rock recently inquired, “who actually wants to be called an owner?” Who wants to claim minority status, yet also claim membership in a privileged class of persons where the basis of membership is one’s racial ancestry?

It’s time we retire this “Hispanic as ethnicity” distinction and officially accord Hispanics the racial category American society has already assigned us.

(Credit: U.S. Census Bureau)

*There is some dispute as to whether Marsans and Almeida were the first Cubans to play in the Major Leagues, as other Cubans are alleged to have played earlier for various professional baseball organizations in the U.S. Nevertheless, Adrian Burgos Jr., in his book entitled Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (University of California Press 2007), observed that Marsans and Almeida appear to be the first Cubans to play in the Major Leagues during what some baseball historians classify as the “modern era.”


D. R. Diaz works in the financial services industry.  He lives with his wife and two sons in Washington, D.C.