What You Need to Know About the New Census Numbers on Hispanic Births

The data has gotten attention because of fears that it threatens our national identity, but it signals a blending of culture more than anything else

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This past week, results from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that whites now account for less than half of all births made front-page news. Most of this demographic shift away from our nation’s Eurocentric heritage is being driven by Hispanics, whose median age is younger than that of whites and who tend to have more children than white adults do. I suspect this data has gotten much attention because of concerns that it represents a threat to our identity as a nation, but it actually signals a blending of culture and lineage as much as anything else.

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The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. Hispanics and whites tend to intermarry at relatively high levels, according to 2010 data from the Pew Research Center, reflecting greater racial tolerance, particularly in younger generations, and possibly the fact that many whites and Hispanics are physically indistinguishable. Given that many of these newly born children are biethnic, we are mischaracterizing the data to think of them as either white or Hispanic — many are both.

Then there is the question of language. The concern here is that Hispanic communities will not assimilate and that native English speakers will therefore be disadvantaged. But research has not borne this out. Scholars Rubén Rumbaut, Douglas Massey and Frank Bean have found that Hispanics quickly assimilate linguistically to English. Recent immigrants commonly speak Spanish, of course, but that drops to 35% fluent Spanish speakers among the second generation, then to 17% in the third generation and 5% in the fourth. Spanish-language use, then, is effectively dead by the third to fourth generation, much like German-, Portuguese-, Italian- or Polish-language use died out among previous immigration waves. A fourth-generation Hispanic sounds and looks very much like a fourth-generation German, albeit with darker hair. Of course, immigrant groups always bring some aspects of their cultures that blend with the broad American identity. Cinco de Mayo is probably with us to stay, just as are St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest.

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Demographic shifts do bring challenges, of course. We still struggle to address the educational needs of Hispanics and other racial and ethnic minorities who lag behind whites in achievement and college degrees. But as a white American who lives in one of the most Hispanic cities in the U.S. (Laredo, Texas, 93% Hispanic), the experience has convinced me that at the end of the day we are all more alike than different. If anything, present fears should remind us that we’ve been here before during past immigration waves of Irish, Italians, Germans and Chinese. Of course, few people today would lament that most whites are no longer purely British, wouldn’t they?

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