The Volokh Conspiracy

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Some Comments on Biden's Executive Order re White House Initiative on Hispanics


I just came across a September 2021 Biden "Executive Order on White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics." A few thoughts.

(1) "Only 40 percent of Latino children participate in preschool education programs as  compared to 53 percent of their White peers…. Hispanic and Latino students are more likely than their White peers to experience remote learning arrangements…"

Comment: The executive order oddly contrasts "Latino" with "White." I say oddly because Statistical Directive No. 15, which governs racial classification by the US government, classifies "Hispanic/Latino" as an ethnicity, not a race, and Hispanics can be of any race. I haven't seen the 2020 census data yet, but in past censuses, and in private studies conducted by Pew and others, a bit over fifty percent of American Hispanics self-identify as white; among the ten biggest Hispanic groups, the figures range from around 20% of Dominicans (who have a large admixture of African ancestry) to around 80% of Cubans.

The Biden Administration has proposed changing Directive 15 to treat Hispanic/Latino as a race, but that, for now, is just a proposal—one that has been proposed and ultimately rejected many times since the 1970s. The Administration apparently wants to informally designate Hispanics as a race without going through the legwork to do so officially.

(2) "Due to systemic and historical inequities faced in the classroom, the high school graduation rate for Hispanic students is below the national average." There is also a promise to "monitor and support the development, implementation, and coordination of Federal Government educational, workforce, research, and business development policies, programs, and technical assistance designed to improve outcomes for historically underserved communities, including Hispanics and Latinos."

Comment: The use of "historical" in this context struck me because it's rather inapposite. In 1970, Hispanics composed approximately five percent of the US population. Now, they are approximately twenty percent. That increase has been fueled primarily by immigration. There are entire Latino subgroups, such as Salvadorans and Guatemalans, who were barely present in the US until the 1980s but now have a substantial representation in the country.

In short, whatever the reasons for lower socioeconomic attainment among Latinos, historical inequities are unlikely to be the main cause, given that most Latinos trace their ancestry to the US to no earlier than 1970, and many much later. Post-1970 Latino immigrants, unlike prior immigrant groups, benefited from a host of federal civil rights protections, affirmative action, and social welfare programs.

(3) Treating Hispanics/Latinos as a uniform group makes little sense in general, but even less so when trying to make social welfare policy. Consider the Latino population of Florida. There are Cuban Americans descended from those who came to the US around the time that Castro came to power; another large group, with different demographics, who came in the Mariel immigration in 1980; hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, many of who arrived after the last big hurricane; a large group of Mexican farm laborers who work in the agricultural sector; relatively well-off Venezuelans and Argentines ex-pats fleeing socialist policies in their home countries; poorer South Americans, many of whom have overstayed visas or otherwise have dubious legal status, and don't always mix with their wealthier (and whiter) counterparts; and so on.

Some of these groups are, on average, doing quite well as judged by various socio-economic indicators; others are not. The reasons for these disparities have everything to do with the economic, social, and human capital they brought to the US, not with their "Hispanicness." Racism may also play some role, but that would be the case primarily for those who are dark-complexioned, but not, say, an Italian-Argentine immigrant. In any event, Mexican farm labors an hour outside of Tampa and Miami Cubans have sufficiently little in common that grouping them together in making policy is, at best, problematic.

(4) Surveys show that the vast majority of Hispanic/Latino Americans prefer to be considered either "just American" or by their national origin (Cuban American, Mexican American, etc). They accept Hispanic or Latino as a secondary identity, but not their primary one.

(5) For a long time, Mexican Americans dominated the demographics of the Latino population in the US. One could therefore read "Hispanic" or "Latino" as "Mexican American" and be pretty close to the truth, statistics-wise. Mexican Americans are themselves a diverse population, ranging from wealthy, white expats to Indians whose first language in Mexico was an Indigenous one, not Spanish, but at least they are a somewhat coherent national-origin group. The Latino population, however, has grown increasingly diverse; only around 60% of Hispanic Americans are now of Mexican origin. Moreover, native-born Mexican Americans have a high intermarriage rate, increasingly the internal diversity of those deemed by statistics-keepers to be Mexican (and also leading many people with Mexican ancestry to not identify as Hispanic to survey-takers). [UPDATE: I should have mentioned, re the lined in parentheses above, that assimilation into the "non-Hispanic white" category distorts statistics about Hispanic Americans. Better educated and wealthier Hispanics are more likely to marry non-Hispanic whites,  and many children of such unions don't identify as Hispanics in surveys. So statistics about, e.g., economic mobility for Hispanics understate the groups' success.]

So perhaps it's time to go back to the 1960s, when the major Latino groups of the time–Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Ricans were tabulated separately. (Fun fact: the affirmative action category in the Bakke case that reached the Supreme Court in 1978 was Mexican-American, not Hispanic). It certainly makes little sense for a "White House Intiative" to draw no distinctions between Anya Taylor-Joy and a Mexican Indian picking strawberries in central California.

(6) Needless to say, if this sort of thing interests you, you should read my book on American racial classication.