Italians, Irish and European Jews were all once considered 'non-white' by the standards of their day but that's hardly the case now - and certainly not the case with the descendants of those immigrants.

But a new study on Latino immigrants finds that, in contrast to past generations of European immigrants, a significant share of second-and-third-generation Latino-Americans still identify with a Latino racial category.

Joseph Michael, a UC doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and a researcher at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and Jeffrey Timberlake, University of Cincinnati assistant professor of sociology, are examining how the immigration of Latinos to the United States compares to the earlier European immigration waves of white ethnic groups such as the Italian, Irish and European Jewish immigrants.

The researchers explain that in most surveys and the U.S. Census, Latino respondents are first asked to identify themselves as Latino or Hispanic, and then they are asked to select a racial identity. “Thus, American social scientists have defined Latinos not as a racial group, but rather as an ethnicity (or set of ethnicities) based largely on the relatively common cultural heritage of Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean,” write the authors.

The 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census report that over 40 percent of Latinos selected “other” when they were asked to check a race category with the choices of white, African-American, Asian, Native-American or other. To further explore the strong response to the “other” category, the authors analyzed data from the 1989-1990 Latino National Political Survey (LNPS) – the only nationally representative survey of several major Latino groups with data on skin color. The face-to-face survey of 2,800 Latinos identified socio-economic differences, political attitudes, generation status, primary language, length of time in the U.S. and social affiliations of Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans – the three largest Latino groups in the U.S.

In the LPNS, respondents would first be asked if they considered themselves as white, black or “something else,” which would be recorded as “other.” Two additional categories, one, focusing on Spanish heritage and the other, reflecting a racial identification more similar to that found in Latin American nations than in the U.S., would evolve from the open-ended question, “What race are you"”

The researchers report that Cubans, at a rate of about 91 percent, overwhelmingly self-identified as white, while Puerto Ricans (56 percent) and Mexicans (49 percent) were much less likely to select the “white” category. Still, one third of dark-skinned Latino respondents called themselves white, suggesting that “there’s a great deal of ambiguity in the meaning of ‘white’ for Latinos,” write the researchers.

However, the researchers also found that increasing exposure to American culture led to a Spanish racial self identification over “white.” This is in sharp contrast to the immigrants from Italy, Ireland and the European Jews who campaigned against an “other” racial status and as the generations progressed, were incorporated into the “white” category.

“The presence of this alternate stream of identification implies that Latinos develop unique conceptions of their racial identities in the U.S. context by virtue of experiences and perceptions that differ from those of people in Latin America, blacks in the U.S. and whites of European decent in the U.S.,” write the authors. “Through these experiences, Latinos may learn that they occupy a unique position in the U.S. racial structure and their self identification may reflect this.”

The researchers say it appears many American-born and long-term first-generation Latinos appear to be campaigning for a new racial category to reflect their Latin-American or Spanish-Caribbean ancestry.

Source: “Are Latinos Becoming White" Determinants of Latinos’ Racial Self-Identification in the U.S.” – was presented Aug. 12 at the 102nd annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York.