News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Distinctions that defy logic

The terms Christian and Catholic define mutually exclusive groups in the minds of many in the United States. On closer examination, this is an odd distinction. In common parlance, “Christian” is the accepted term for Protestant denominations, especially those with an evangelical bent. Catholics are somehow excluded from being “Christian.” Yet the Catholic faith can trace a direct lineage to the church founded by the apostles of Christ. Ironically, many U.S. Catholics have come to accept the distinction between Christian and Catholic – despite its semantic contradiction.

A similar logical dissonance surrounds the terms “Hispanic” and “White” (or “Hispanic” and “Black” for that matter). In the minds of many in the United States, these groups are mutually exclusive. The facts, however, prove otherwise.

To begin with, the term “Hispanic” does not define a race. The U.S. Census Bureau makes this quite clear. According to the Census Bureau, there are six racial categories. Hispanic is not one of them. In fact, in its official definition of Hispanic, the Census Bureau clearly states Hispanics may be “persons of any race.” Like the distinction between Christian and Catholic, however, in common parlance Hispanic has become a de facto racial category. And like the Catholics who have come to accept the distinction from being Christian, many Hispanics now buy into that racial defintion. This has created serious consequences.

The widespread misconception of Hispanics as a separate race is fueling some of the most divisive issues in the U.S. today. The most recent example is in the controversy surrounding the alleged “racism” of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

Judge Sotomayor has been excoriated in some circles for saying "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Notwithstanding that the phrase has been taken out of context, when Judge Sotomayor used the term “white male,” did she use white as a racial definition or as a cultural group?

Many of Sotomayor’s critics immediately seized upon the racial connotation.

But purely on the basis of genetics, many women categorized as “Latina” are white by any clinical definition. Hispanic actresses Cameron Diaz, Alexis Bledel and Julie Gonzalo are just three examples. (At the same time, the late Afro-Cuban salsa legend Celia Cruz is unmistakbly of African descent, proving no single racial group defines Hispanics.)

So, in truth, the charges of “racism” against Judge Sotomayor betray a racism of their own. Unfortunately, many Hispanics suffer from the same malady.

What does “Hispanic” really mean? The Census Bureau defines Hispanic as a person whose origins are from a Spanish-speaking country. Now let’s turn that around. Suppose we were to take people with origins from all English-speaking countries and call them “Britannic.” That group would include people from England, Jamaica, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, to name a few. Would any rational person consider all English-speakers across the world to be part of a single race?

All the same, the belief in a Hispanic “race” has widespread support. A major U.S. Latino advocacy groups calls itself La Raza—The Race. In U.S. media reports, academic journals and some medical studies, Hispanics are treated as a distinct racial group alongside White, Black and Asian. These often well-intentioned reports sometimes qualify their racial definitions with footnotes that explain “White” or “Black” mean Non-Hispanic White and Non-Hispanic Black. But these subtleties are lost on most readers.

Adding to the confusion, the term “White” as currently defined in the United States is not really a homogenous group either. In fact, many of the nationalities currently categorized as White (like Italians, Jews and the Irish), were once considered separate races in the United States. So what does White really mean? It’s certainly not just about skin color. Italians, Greeks, Armenians and other Mediterranean people accepted as White are no less swarthy than Spaniards. Portugal even shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain. Yet the Portuguese are not considered Hispanics.

The bottom line is this: The real differences between people labeled “White” or "Black" and those labeled “Hispanic” are as much cultural as racial distinctions. Until the U.S. sheds the myth of a Hispanic “race,” we will continue to see a widening chasm between mainstream Americans and the rapidly growing Hispanic community.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez