What's to Become of Hispanic Identity?

A Study Shows Race, Not Heritage, Is Key for Some of Latin/Spanish Descent

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A paper published in the journal Social Science Research raises important questions regarding the ongoing assimilation of Hispanics in the United States and its implications for the future of multicultural marketing.

The research by two University of Southern California sociologists shows that 6% of respondents reporting Spanish or Latin American ancestry in a 2006 survey conducted by the U.S. Census answered "no" when asked if they identify themselves as Spanish, Hispanic or Latino. The authors, Amon Emeka and Jody Agius Vallejo, suggest that this might be early evidence of "ethnic attrition" or assimilation among Hispanics.

With three-quarters of today's Hispanics either immigrants or second-generation, theories abound of how today's immigrants and their children -- who are mostly non-white -- will assimilate (or acculturate). But most empirical evidence is based on early 20th century immigrants, who were mostly white. Since it's impossible to ask this particular group of survey respondents why they said that they were not Hispanic, the authors developed a regression model to predict variables associated with non-Hispanic identity. While education, income, age and gender were significant predictors of Hispanic identity, more powerful predictors were mixed ancestry, English-language exclusivity and race.

Not surprisingly, respondents of mixed ancestry (Latin American/Spanish and something else) were less likely to say they were Hispanic. Similarly, non-Spanish speakers were significantly less likely to call themselves Hispanic. However, the biggest eye-opener centered on race. Respondents of Latin American/Spanish ancestry who identified their race as white, black or Asian were several times more likely to identify as non-Hispanic than those who said that their race was mixed or "some other race."

The authors conclude that this may reflect a "racialized notion of Hispanicity " among Latin American descendants, who think of white, black, Asian and Hispanic as mutually exclusive racial groups. It is a mind-boggling conclusion, given that in the 2010 U.S. Census, 53% of those who self-identified as "Hispanic" indicated that they were white, 3% black and 1% Asian/Pacific Islander.

The responses revealed a big difference between the foreign-born and the U.S.-born. Only 2% of those born in Latin America or Spain indicated that they were non-Hispanic, compared to 12% of those born in the United States. Given that the majority of future growth in the Hispanic market will be driven by the U.S.-born, and that close to nine in 10 Hispanics under 18 were born in the United States, we can assume that future generations of Hispanics will relate to their Hispanidad differently than did their immigrant parents and grandparents.

So what is to become of Hispanic identity? Clearly, intermarriage with non-Hispanics will lead to some diminution of Hispanidad among the children of such unions. So will the inevitable loss of Spanish as a primary language among the U.S.-born. And based on this analysis, a subset of Hispanics will identify more with their race than their Hispanic ethnicity with the passage of time.

Sociologist George Yancey predicts that in coming decades Hispanics and Asians will assimilate into the mainstream, creating a new "black/non-black" divide, similar to what occurred in the early 20th century, when newly arrived ethnic groups were widely thought of as non-white. Others envision a divide between whites, Asians, lighter-skinned Hispanics and lighter people of mixed race on one side, and African Americans, darker Hispanics and darker people of mixed race on the other. Neither of these scenarios would bode well for America. The good news is that today's younger generation is largely bereft of yesteryear's baggage regarding race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Wherever we end up, it will likely be in a better place.

As multicultural marketers (something all of us in this profession will be), we need to be mindful that race and ethnicity are, and always have been, fluid concepts. The "non-whites" of the early 20th century -- the Irish, Italians and Jews -- assimilated into the mainstream. To be successful, we will need to remove our cultural blinders and anachronistic conceptions and speak the language of whatever new America is evolving.

Author Michael Barone has written that it took white ethnic immigrants about 100 years to fully assimilate into the American mainstream. So if we date the new Hispanic immigration to have started around 1975, and if the past is any measure of the future, we can expect Hispanic marketing to be around as a meaningful category until at least 2075. By that time, our grandkids will be horrified by the inundation of America by some other ethnic group, as scholars study the assimilation of early 21st century Hispanics into the mainstream. And for certain, the multicultural-marketing pundits will declare that the new immigrants are different, that they are special and that they are nothing like the earlier immigrants, including Hispanics, who came to America in search of their dreams. And they will be partly right.

David Morse is president-CEO of New American Dimensions and the author of Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation
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