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Americans by Any Name

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

If the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants still see themselves as a group apart, it's because we've encouraged them to do so. Not only do we ask people constantly to check boxes as to their ethnic identity but also government rewards members of some racial and ethnic groups on that basis. Colleges and universities routinely give preferences in admission to black and Hispanic students. My organization, the Center for Equal Opportunity, has been documenting the degree of preference at public colleges and universities since 1995, and it is both wide and deep, resulting in huge advantages for black and Hispanic applicants. And those preferences extend to employment and government contracting.

But the news on the assimilation front in the Pew Hispanic Center's study is not all bad. As a group, Hispanics overwhelmingly believe in the importance of learning English; 90 percent think English fluency is crucial to succeeding in the U.S. The study found that nearly all U.S.-born Hispanics say they speak, read and write English well, which confirms other studies on language acquisition. Only 1 percent of third-generation Hispanics remain Spanish-dominant, and though the study does not break down the numbers, it is likely these are older Hispanics living in isolated communities.

Nearly half of Hispanics say they think of themselves as "a typical American." Those likeliest to think of themselves in those terms are U.S.-born, English-speaking and middle- or upper-middle-income. Among Hispanics earning $70,000 a year or more, 70 percent think of themselves as typical Americans.

But even in the minds of Hispanic immigrants, America still represents a place of hope and opportunity. A larger proportion of Hispanics than other Americans believe that most people can get ahead with hard work -- 75 percent, compared with 58 percent. And almost 90 percent of immigrants say the United States provides more opportunity to get ahead than their country of origin.

In the end, these attitudes may suggest more about Hispanics' assimilation than what they call themselves.

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