A generic political dispute becomes an interesting look at demography

A generic political dispute becomes an interesting look at demography

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It was the kind of dispute that erupted almost every day, a conservative politician using a critical opinion piece as a jumping-off point for disparaging the media in general.

But this particular dispute, involving the rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) and an MSNBC columnist, however inadvertently, also stumbled into more interesting territory — considering how demographics and politics overlap, and how our approach to race is often much more simplistic that she should be.

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The fight started with a column by MSNBC’s Julio Ricardo Varela. He noted that the new 118th Congress had more Hispanic members than any previous Congress — but that the newly sworn-in members included liberal Democrats and pro-Trump Republicans.

Varela singled out Luna for particular criticism.

Luna, he writes, “is related to the boss [House Speaker] Kevin McCarthy’s opponent, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and has worked with what I consider to be a white supremacist cult MAGA: The Turning Point in the US. It should come as no surprise that a Latino would be an adherent of MAGA — that is, of Trump’s “make America great again” ideology — he wrote, since there were “many Latinos and Latinas who immediately sided with the authoritarian xenophobe and MAGA. The movement has always had Latino support.”

“While Luna’s ascension to the House is certainly newsworthy,” he concluded, “it’s important that we journalists avoid putting too much emphasis on a representative of Mexican descent who has signed a political movement that started with the demonization of Mexicans.”

Without mincing words, of course, and Luna responded with equal ferocity. She highlighted the last sentence above, calling it “a twisted lie,” on her personal Twitter account. In her official government account, she took a different route.

Wow. Is @MSNBC really trying to paint me as a white supremacist? Frankly, I’m tired of the leftist media focusing so much on my race. It’s sad to see how fired up the left is about me being a conservative.

— Anna Paulina Luna (@VoteAPL) January 8, 2023

Here we see the hallmarks of an attempt to ignite a media controversy: the broad attribution of an MSNBC columnist’s words and, for good measure, the misrepresentation of those words. She also offered a better-aimed critique that the column viewed it through the lens of race, which, of course, was the whole point of Varela’s piece.

“Obama was half white. Yet they said he was the first black President. I’m half white, so that doesn’t make me ‘Hispanic enough,’ MSNBC?” she wrote in a follow-up tweet. “It’s pathetic to see how much the left bullies minority conservatives.” In an interview with Newsmax, she reiterated this argument.

Again, this line of argument does not really flow from Valera’s essay. He did not suggest that she was somehow incompletely Hispanic because of her politics; instead, he noted that there were many Hispanics who supported Trump’s agenda, much to his dismay. His point was one that has been raised a lot in recent years: that Hispanics, who traditionally vote heavily Democratic, had shown signs of shifting to the right.

However, this difference reflects Luna’s point: that Americans who have mixed racial identities are often assumed to share characteristics with one of their identities or the other. In other words, that racial demographic is more complicated than we often recognize. Which is both true and (regardless of its applicability to her feud with Varela) understated.

Let’s begin with a summary of Varela’s first point: the changing demographics of Congress. The percentage of the House that is made up of white men has fallen below 50 percent in recent years, though it is still well over 30 percent of the population that this group makes up in the country overall. The percentage of the House that is Hispanic, meanwhile, has risen above 10 percent, though it’s still well below the 19 percent of the general population. (White women are also underrepresented in the House of Representatives.)

However, a critical star for this chart is the definition of “White”. The data on Congress uses a process of elimination: anyone who does not identify as Black, Hispanic, or Asian did not make it into the White pool. However, Census Bureau data uses a more precise definition: people who identify their race as white and do not claim Hispanic ethnicity.

For decades now, this has been the distinction drawn by the government: you have race and you have ethnicity. You can be white and non-Hispanic (like, say, President Biden) or white and Hispanic (like many people we generally consider Hispanic, apparently including Luna) or, say, black and Hispanic ( like some people from the Dominican Republic) or Asian and non-Hispanic.

The Census Bureau has tried to introduce more precision into the process by allowing people to describe their racial background in more detail. That’s a big reason the percentage of white Americans fell in the 2020 census: There were more opportunities than in years past for Americans to describe the complexity of their family histories. Many people fell into a broader and more ambiguous multiracial grouping.

This is the other important factor for the politics of it all: racial and ethnic identification involves subjective evaluations. This is not some kind of abstract, touchy-feely approach to race, but rather an acknowledgment of how the government collects this data and how people access their identities. As I note in my forthcoming book (which explores this topic at length), people often do not consider the complexities of their racial identities until prompted to do so by governmental forms. For many Americans, racial identity exists in Schrödinger’s cat-style ambiguity until they are prompted to be sure of it.

What is fascinating about the Luna-Varela discussion is the evidence that many people of Hispanic heritage become less inclined to identify as Hispanic over time. In 2017, the Pew Research Center released an analysis showing that people of Hispanic heritage were less likely to identify as Hispanic the longer their families had been in the United States.

There is another subtext here about the ability of different groups to assimilate into a mainstream American culture led by a white majority. This is a complex discussion, full of itself. A correlation is also noted between the above model and politics. As Jack Herrera argued in an important 2021 article for Texas Monthly, many older Hispanics in Texas contrasted their politics with those focused on newer arrivals.

“Hispanic residents of our state are far more likely to identify as white than Hispanic urban residents elsewhere in the country,” Herrera wrote. “With roots many generations deep in the lands that were annexed from Mexican to US control, many also actively refuse to be cast as immigrants.”

In 2020, this region shifted toward Trump compared to 2016. So did heavily Hispanic parts of Florida, the state Luna represents.

Bringing us back to Luna’s argument. She claims she’s been dismissed as not Hispanic enough because she’s of mixed heritage, which, again, wasn’t a point Valera was making. But her politics and her racial and ethnic background represent an interesting nexus right now: someone who identifies as Hispanic, votes Republican, and has a family history that includes relatives of different races.

Like Barack Obama before her, she represented a complex racial background, reaching a very different political place. Each represents a different facet of America’s increasingly complex makeup. Not exactly the point Luna was trying to make, but something worth noting.

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