Reframing Latino Identity for the 21st Century

by Raúl Quiñones Rosado, Ph.D.
Latinos and Race Policy in the US (Part One)

In my social justice education and antiracism organizing work, it’s quite a task to get people, whether in education, human services, law enforcement, the judicial system, religion, philanthropy, non-profits or government, to examine how they think about race and racism or to explore the powerful personal feelings and challenging social behaviors these ideas generate. It’s harder still to get these community and institutional leaders, policy makers and enforcers to consider how racism — race prejudice plus institutional power, or as journalist Bill Moyers more poignantly declares, “white supremacy enforced through state control” — continues to operate within their own organizations and institutions, disproportionately and negatively impacting the Latino and Black American communities being served. In these racially diverse educational and organizing contexts designed to promote fundamental changes in institutional practices to foster racial equity, the conversation about Latinos mostly revolves around how “Latino” (or “Hispanic”) needs to be considered a “race”, a distinct racialized ethnicity, counted separately from whites, Black Americans, Native Americans, Asians and others, in order to account for and counter persisting racial inequities.

Even when working solely with Latino and Latina leaders, the main emphasis of the work is on how we, as Latinos—that is, people of Latin American origin in the United States—have historically come to be collectively racialized as a separate and distinctly non-white racial group. This emphasis, deliberately aimed at challenging racism and creating racial equity, is focused on strengthening our collective identity as Latinos as a racial group in the context of the US.

Whatever the context, I find it increasingly appropriate, and quite opportune, to examine layers of greater complexity concerning Latinos and Latino racial identity in the United States as related to its race policy. This exploration is particularly opportune at a time when antiracism organizers, institutional leaders and policy makers alike may be wondering, or perhaps worrying, what will be the impact of the rate and scope of Latino population growth over the coming decades — especially given the anticipation that Latinos, together with other People of Color, will become a racial “majority” in the United States within the next thirty years.

Exploration of some of the many complexities regarding Latinos is also timely as this demographic shift coincides with a process, already decades long, of reframing racial categories or, more precisely, a redefining of who is white in the United States. Once again in its history, this country’s race policy is in a process of being re-crafted by policy makers and implemented by institutional gatekeepers. A process of racial realignment is already being entertained by the media, the workplace, the marketplace, the body politic and the general population, impacting perceptions, conceptions, and judgments about who Latinos are and, more importantly, what will be our (new?) place in this racially stratified society in the 21st century.

The pluri-national, pan-ethnic, and racially-mixed peoples of Latin American origin in the US, historically racialized as “non-whites,” are being redefined, reclassified and reconfigured, resulting in the re-racialization of a significant portion of the Latino population as “whites.” Facilitated by current race policy, this process, if left unchallenged, may well result in maintaining, if only on paper, a “white majority” throughout the century ahead. This racial reframing undermines on-going and hard-fought efforts to recognize and correct racial disparities in educational, health care, human services, law enforcement and criminal justice systems. It is a process that would help to maintain white supremacy—in our institutions and throughout our culture—for the foreseeable future.

As a social psychologist and member of the Latino community, I wonder—and often worry—not only how Latinos and Latinas will continue to collectively identify ourselves but, in some ways even more importantly, how we will be seen and related to by other racial groups in the US by mid-21st Century—particularly as driven by officially sanctioned, state controlled, race policy. More specifically, I wonder if Latinos, historically racialized as non-whites, will still be considered, referred to, and treated as “People of Color” in the decades ahead. Or, like other previously racialized ethnic groups—Irish, Italians, Jews and others—will Latinos, currently categorized by policymakers as Hispanic/Latino/Spanish ethnics of any race also be collectively reassigned out of the racial middle to a new place and status, within the historical binary of White and Black upon which race and racism have been constructed.

In subsequent posts, I will describe the current policy of re-racialization of Latinos and the effort to assimilate light-skinned Latinos into the white collective. I will also argue for a US national race policy that supports a collective Latino identity, one that can serve to strengthen cross-racial struggle against racism and toward racial equity.

Adapted from Latinos and Multiracial America. Race Policy and Multiracial Americans. K. Odell Korgen (Ed.). The Policy Press, University of Bristol, UK. 2016.