The U.S. census makes a critical assumption that undermines its predictions of a majority-nonwhite country. It projects that the same percentage of people who currently identify themselves as “Latino” or “Asian” will continue to claim those identities in future generations. In reality, that’s highly unlikely. History shows that as ethnic groups assimilate into American culture, they increasingly identify themselves as “white.”
Whiteness is not a genetic category, after all; it’s a social and political construct that relies on perception and prejudice. A century ago, Irish, Italians, and Jews were not seen as whites. “This town has 8,000,000 people,” a young Harry Truman wrote his cousin upon visiting New York City in 1918. “7,500,000 of ’em are of Israelish extraction. (400,000 wops and the rest are white people.)” But by the time Truman became president, all those immigrant groups were considered “white.” There’s no reason to imagine that Latinos and Asians won’t follow much the same pattern.
More than 18% of Americans identify as Hispanic or Latino, the nation’s second largest racial or ethnic group. But two trends – a long-standing high intermarriage rate and a decade of declining Latin American immigration – are distancing some Americans with Hispanic ancestry from the life experiences of earlier generations, reducing the likelihood they call themselves Hispanic or Latino.
Among the estimated 42.7 million U.S. adults with Hispanic ancestry in 2015, nine-in-ten (89%), or about 37.8 million, self-identify as Hispanic or Latino. But another 5 million (11%) do not consider themselves Hispanic or Latino, according to Pew Research Center estimates. The closer they are to their immigrant roots, the more likely Americans with Hispanic ancestry are to identify as Hispanic. Nearly all immigrant adults from Latin America or Spain (97%) say they are Hispanic. Similarly, second-generation adults with Hispanic ancestry (the U.S.-born children of at least one immigrant parent) have nearly as high a Hispanic self-identification rate (92%), according to Pew Research Center estimates.
By the third generation – a group made up of the U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents and immigrant grandparents – the share that self-identifies as Hispanic falls to 77%. And by the fourth or higher generation (U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents and U.S.-born grandparents, or even more distant relatives), just half of U.S. adults with Hispanic ancestry say they are Hispanic.1
Among adults who say they have Hispanic ancestors (a parent, grandparent, great grandparent or earlier ancestor) but do not self-identify as Hispanic, the vast majority – 81% – say they have never thought of themselves as Hispanic, according to a Pew Research Center survey of the group. When asked why this is the case in an open-ended follow-up question, the single most common response (27%) was that their Hispanic ancestry is too far back or their background is mixed.