Op-Ed: Why did so few Latinos identify themselves as white in the 2020 census?

The top of the form for the 2020 U.S. census.
Under the category “white” on the 2020 census form, there were names of countries not usually associated with Latinos in Los Angeles.
(John Roark / Idaho Post-Register)

The 2020 census results made a splash in mid-August with this clear message: A declining number of people in the United States identify themselves as white, and the shift is happening faster than many had predicted. But all the justified focus on the “browning” of America obscured a second storyline: the browning of Brown America.

Strikingly, the share of Latinos who identified their race as white in the 2020 census fell from about 53% in 2010 to about 20% in 2020; the share who identified as “other” rose from 37% to 42%, and the share identifying as two or more races jumped from 6% to 33%. These are big changes — ones that cannot be explained just by intermarriage and ones that challenge a narrative that Latinos will eventually assimilate into whiteness.

So what’s going on? Partly, the census shifts reflect a change in the way the government collects data. When it asked for race, the census in 2020 added prompts under the “white” category that included countries not associated with America’s Latino population. Still, the move away from “white” is so dramatic that it could be other factors as well — such as a xenophobic political climate that has made many Latinos aware that whiteness may not be easily within their reach.


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Yet another part of the census story may be explained by the numbers of Latino millennials who are developing an identity as “people of color” often in alliance with Black, Asian American and Indigenous groups. The “BIPOC” label has been adopted and supported by young people of many ethnic and racial groups since the racial justice protests prompted by the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd.

Yet another piece of the puzzle may be found in the way that place identity and race identity have become intertwined. Our research, based on hundreds of interviews and statistical analysis, explores the demographic evolution of South Los Angeles. The data point that grabs everyone’s initial interest is this: South L.A. was 80% Black in 1970 but is now two-thirds Latino.

Like all grabby takeaways, it can obscure as well as illuminate.

We should ask ourselves, is Latino identity the same today as it was when the shift in South-Central’s population first began? It turns out that the Mexican and Central American immigrants who moved to South L.A. in the late 1980s did see themselves as distinct from the homegrown Black population. Monolingualism, anti-Black prejudices brought from their countries of origin and the street violence of the 1980s and 1990s led this first generation to shut in and shut out, largely keeping their distance from African American neighbors.

Not so their children, second-generation Latinos who grew up with Black friends, listened to hip-hop and were inspired by Black teachers, mentors and social justice advocates. Their lives were not free of Black-brown tensions — they sometimes even experienced so-called race riots at their schools — but the upshot is this: They developed a sense of self and home defined by place-based identity, one articulated as a strong affinity with Black people, Black culture and the struggle for racial equity.


Indeed, many Latinos raised in South L.A. feel distinct from friends and relatives in East L.A. whom they perceive as sometimes racist and often too nationalistic. For this generation, raised “in an aura of Blackness,” as one of our respondents said, Black-brown solidarity is the name of the political game, and this is reflected in a set of vibrant organizations — such as Community Coalition, a group founded by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) — that organize in South L.A. based on a sense of shared fate.

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It’s not all kumbaya. The Latino move-in was made possible by a Black exodus triggered by deindustrialization, job loss, gang warfare and overpolicing. South L.A. is doing better on all those fronts, but the decline in the Black population has created a set of worries about displacement and erasure by both demography and gentrification. Still, what we see in South L.A. is not one group taking over the space of another through ethnic succession, but rather a process of racial and ethnic sedimentation and interweaving.

This process complicates traditional models of neighborhood change, and it should complicate our ideas about fixed racial, ethnic and national identities. Latinos in the 2020s have been through the Trump presidency and the failure of our nation to live up to its supposed ethos as a nation of immigrants. In major urban areas in the United States, the two populations now living in the closest proximity are Black and Latino, often finding common cause challenging how they get left behind and kept behind.

Given that, we suggest it’s no surprise that whiteness lost its allure for Latinos in the 2020 census. Understanding the fluidity the data reveal — and how racial identity is dependent on time and space — will be key as the nation becomes increasingly majority-minority.

The future of who Americans will be is not foreordained by who we were or who we are now, but by the ties we build and the experiences we have with one another going forward.

Manuel Pastor and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo are professors of sociology at USC and the authors of “South Central Dreams: Finding Home and Building Community in South L.A.”