Republicans have a better chance to win minority hearts and minds than they think

In the mid-Sixties I was among several hundred young men who reported to a military base in Detroit for a draft physical. A bored African-American sergeant walked us through the preliminary paperwork.  “Last name: Where it says ‘last name,’ write down your last name,” he intoned. “First name: Where it says ‘first name,’ write down your first name.”

When we got to the “race” box, one of the guys raised his hand.  The sergeant ignored him. “Ain’t but two races,” he barked.

Everything was black and white back then when it came to race.

No more. In 2010 the US Census offered citizens a choice of fifteen races: White, Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Other Asian, Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro, Samoan, Other Pacific Islander.

The party must lose its fear that Hispanic immigration is a Trojan horse packed with natural-born Democratic voters. They aren’t. In fact, they look a lot like the 20th Century ethnic immigrants whose children are now the mainstay of the GOP.

There was also a mysterious 16th choice: “Some other race.”  That was intended as a stand-in for Hispanics who didn’t see themselves in any of the racial categories.

There were some surprises in that census. America was supposed to be on its way to becoming a “majority-minority” country because of Hispanic immigration, but the responses said something different.  Fifty-three percent of Hispanics declared themselves to be “white” (up from 48 percent in the 2000 census). Three years later, a survey of racial self-identification conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 65.9 percent of Hispanics now saw themselves as “white.”

Not only that. Between 2000 and 2010, more than a million Hispanics (net) moved themselves out of the “some other race” category to “white.”

These numbers challenge the Democratic hope (and the Republican fear) that massive Hispanic immigration and a high Hispanic birthrate are transforming America into a radically different country, one that will be dominated,  politically and culturally, by an alliance of alienated Black and Latino citizens.t.

This scenario only works, however, if Hispanics agree to play the role of oppressed and angry “people of color.” And that seems unlikely.  Hispanics do not have to remain a permanent aggrieved interest group. Race for them and their offspring is malleable.

In this way, Hispanics resemble earlier immigrant groups. In the last century, America warily absorbed large groups of Irish, Italian, Greek and Jewish newcomers. Not everyone liked them or approved of them. The newcomers were accused of importing dangerous foreign ideas and customs. The spoke indecipherable languages. Some were accused of being anarchists or communists.

Many old time Americans considered them to be “non-white.” And a lot of the immigrants saw themselves that way.  My grandfather, who came from Poland, referred to his gentile neighbors as “white people.”

The new arrivals of the 20th Century were the butts of crude ethnic humor, nasty stereotypes and sometimes blatant discrimination. Here and there they suffered violent attacks. But they were realists. They appreciated their new country because it was so much better than their old ones.  And they saw that their children had a chance in America to rise and be accepted as first class citizens.

When Hispanics tell census takers and Pew pollsters that they consider themselves “white,” they are not making a statement about the color of their skin or the racial history of their family.  They are saying something aspirational. They want to assimilate into the American mainstream. And that mainstream, despite all the racial progress of the past fifty years, remains predominantly white.

This is a tragedy for the descendants of African slaves and an open national wound.  But is also a fact that in America, being white comes with advantages. And very few people, presented with a choice, will pick an identity or affiliation that seems disadvantageous.

Not all Hispanics aspire to be white or see themselves that way. Many of the 26 percent who say they are “of some other race” will remain comfortably in the fold, of the Democratic Party, where identity grievances are merit badges.

But Republicans have a better chance than they think to win hearts and minds.  To do so it will have to dispense with alarmist screeds like Ann Coulter’s best-selling, "Adios, America! The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole".  And it must lose its fear that Hispanic immigration is a Trojan horse packed with natural-born Democratic voters.  They aren’t. In fact, they look a lot like the 20th Century ethnic immigrants whose children are now the mainstay of the GOP.

Republicans should invite these new Americans to the party (in the form of attractive candidates and palatable immigration and social policy). If they do extend a genuine invitation, they will be surprised by how many RSVPs they receive on Election Day.