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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Understanding the Distinctiveness of Hispanic Experience

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

The use of the term “people of color” frequently obscures more than it clarifies since it is typically used to imply a unity of experience, particularly disadvantaging experience, among all nonwhites. The inclusion of Asians already makes little sense when you compare the socioeconomic outcomes of Asians to whites, where the former are generally superior.

But it is also the case that conflating the experiences of “black and brown”, a common locution among progressives, is also misleading. In fact, one needs to understand the distinctiveness of Hispanic experience in today’s America to have a prayer of understanding recent political trends among this population and what they may portend for the future.

Start with economic outcomes. Noah Smith wrote in a very interesting recent substack post:

“The boom of 2014-2019 — and it was a boom, even though we kind of ignored it — was good for everyone, but in percentage terms it was especially good for Hispanics….In fact, despite some claims to the contrary, Hispanic upward mobility has been a fact of American life for a long time now. My favorite paper on this is Chetty, Hendren, Jones & Porter (2018), which assessed mobility across generations. They found:

“We study the sources of racial and ethnic disparities in income using de-identified longitudinal data covering nearly the entire U.S. population from 1989-2015….[T]he intergenerational persistence of disparities varies substantially across racial groups. For example, Hispanic Americans are moving up significantly in the income distribution across generations because they have relatively high rates of intergenerational income mobility…

Hispanic Americans are moving up significantly in the income distribution across generations. For example, a model of intergenerational mobility analogous to Becker and Tomes (1979) predicts that the gap will shrink from the 22 percentile difference between Hispanic and white parents observed in our sample…to 6 percentiles in steady state…

Hispanics are on an upward trajectory across generations and may close most of the gap between their incomes and those of whites…Their low levels of income at present thus appear to to be primarily due to transitory factors.”

Smith goes on to note that two-thirds of Hispanics believe they are better off than their parents were at similar ages and calls attention to data showing a spike in Hispanic college attendance over the last 15 years and precipitous decline in the level of high school dropouts among this population. Perhaps even more interesting is the experience of Hispanics with the criminal justice system. It helps elucidate why Hispanics were not so caught up in the “racial reckoning” after the police killing of George Floyd and were actively turned off by the morphing of the BLM protests into calls to defund the police.

Here is some very interesting data and analysis from a post by Keith Humphreys on Matt Yglesias’ substack:

“An otherwise dull new government report on incarceration contains a startling fact: Hispanics are slightly less likely to be jailed than whites. It’s one of multiple unappreciated signs of fading disparities between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites in the criminal justice system, a phenomenon with substantial implications both for the future of reform and electoral politics….

This isn’t just about city and county jails. A Council on Criminal Justice analysis found that in 2000, the rate of being on probation was 1.6 times higher and the rate of being parole was 3.6 times higher for Hispanics than non-Hispanic whites. But by 2016, the probation disparity had disappeared and the parole disparity had shrunk by 85%. Hispanics still faced a 60% higher risk of being incarcerated in a state prison.

This is an enormous and worrying disparity, but the Council noted that it decreased by 60% since 2000. African-American and white disparities in parole, probation, jail, and incarceration have also declined in this century, but dwarf those that remain between Hispanics and whites….

Parallel changes appear in who the criminal justice system employs. From 1997 to 2016, the proportion of police officers who were African-American was stable, whereas the proportion who were Hispanic increased 61%. This helps explain why a June 2021 Gallup poll found that the proportion of Hispanics expressing “a lot” or “a great deal” of trust in police was 49%, almost as high as whites (56%), and far greater than that of African-Americans (27%). Hispanic views on policing and crime may also be similar to whites because the two groups rate of being violent crime victims is almost identical (21.3 per thousand persons for Hispanics, 21.0 for whites)…

[P]oliticians and activists should not assume that anti-police rhetoric will resonate with Hispanic voters, particularly in communities with heavily Hispanic police forces. Democrats’ weak performance with Latino voters (not just Cubans) in Miami-Dade County in 2020 stopped President Biden from winning the state and knocked two Democratic Members of Congress out of office. And while Trump’s Hispanic gains in other states do not appear to have been decisive, it’s easy to imagine these trends mattering in upcoming Senate races in Arizona, Nevada, and elsewhere….

[A]ll social movements contain the seeds of their own demise because if they succeed, their members are satisfied and begin drifting away. Reduced involvement in the correctional system and rising employment by and trust in police represent progress for Hispanics and should be celebrated; yet they also may lower the willingness of some Hispanics to get engaged with the criminal justice reform movement the country needs. This is not inevitable if reformers are willing to modify their rallying cry.

Currently, many advocates, academics, journalists, and politicians invoke the putatively unified “Black and Brown” experience of the criminal justice system as a rationale and engine for reform. The power of this messaging will wane as Brown experience becomes more like white experience. A different framing that might keep Hispanics at the barricades — as well as draw in many whites — would be to emphasize how the country’s extraordinarily high level of incarceration and community supervision per se harms all racial and ethnic groups.

Having over 6.3 million adults incarcerated or on probation or parole at any given time is a massive drain on American liberty, health, and finances, and is as likely to increase crime as reduce it. The message reformers can and should sell is that even if all racial and ethnic disparities within the criminal justice system disappeared tomorrow, shrinking the correctional system to a rational size would benefit all of America’s diverse communities.”

This is exactly right. Taking into account the distinctiveness of Hispanic experience leads directly to this kind of political approach. We shall see if progressives and activists are willing to adjust their current approach in this direction.

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