A new report from the Pew Hispanic Center says a lot about the assimilation of the nation's largest minority group -- both good and bad. Hispanics -- those 50 million people who trace their ancestry to a Spanish-speaking country -- have become both more numerous and more diverse in the past 40 years. In 1970, Hispanics were primarily U.S.-born Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans -- who are U.S. citizens, whether born in Puerto Rico or on the mainland. But the adult population of Hispanics today is almost equally divided between those who were born in the U.S., 48 percent, and those who are foreign-born, 52 percent.
Unsurprisingly, the presence of this large immigrant group is affecting the way Hispanics think of themselves. One aspect of the report that is bound to provoke controversy -- and, in some quarters, resentment -- is how few Hispanics identify themselves first and foremost as Americans. Only 8 percent of immigrants, 35 percent of second-generation Hispanics and 48 percent of third-generation Hispanics do, according to the Pew study. The question is, Why?
Government policy seems heavily implicated. Government routinely tracks race and ethnicity -- indeed asks us to think about our racial and ethnic identity every time we make an important decision. When you apply to college or take an education entrance exam, you're asked to check a box identifying your racial and ethnic background. When you apply for a job, you must do the same. When you seek a mortgage or a bank loan, either you check the box or the loan officer does it for you. So why are we surprised that so few U.S.-born Hispanics see themselves primarily as Americans?
It wasn't always so. Previous generations of immigrants were encouraged to "Americanize" -- and quickly. At the time of the heaviest influx of newcomers to American shores -- from 1900 to 1924 -- public schools saw it as their primary responsibility to help form the children of these immigrants into new Americans. The entire ethos was assimilation. But that ethos went out the window with the advent of multiculturalism and ethnic solidarity, beginning in the 1960s. This was, of course, the very time that the U.S. was experiencing a new flood of immigrants from Latin America.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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