351. "Hispanics just want what everyone wants." USA Today (April 3, 2001), p 13A.
I know a bit more than many people about the great number of Hispanic Americans who are now popping up on radar screens from Texas to Colorado and from New York to Milwaukee with the release of new Census figures.
My late wife was Mexican-American, and our three handsome sons are half Hispanic. Hence, adding these intimate touches to 40 years of sociology, I feel especially attuned to all of the predictions about the great effects Hispanics are going to have on our future -- culturally and politically.
What the Census numbers revealed, among other things, is that the growth in the Hispanic population is faster than we anticipated. Also, that Texas may soon become the second big state after California in which non-Hispanic whites are no longer the majority. And that Hispanics are settling into areas far beyond the big cities.
With this news, much debate has been generated about the political clout of this burgeoning group and whether it will be the values of the Democrats or Republicans that will garner the most Hispanic support.
My conclusion is that the demographic changes mean much less in social and cultural terms than many people presume. Indeed, it is inadvertently racist to presume that people who share a different pigmentation or some other racial or ethnic features will think, feel or vote differently than the rest of the country.
Mostly, the differences between Hispanic-Americans and others are only skin deep. In fact, Hispanics want what most other Americans want.
Alma Morales Riojas, a representative of a Mexican-American association called MANA, recently enumerated their main goals: decent jobs, access to health care, good schooling for their children. Asked about bilingual education, she stressed the need for learning English. Reform of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the elimination of racial profiling came up. But these, polls show, are also favored by many other Americans.
Public opinion polls strongly suggest that recent claims that the new Census figures have great "political and cultural implications" reflect more wishful thinking than they do sociological reality. Polls show that Hispanics are concerned with respect for the Bill of Rights, but so are the overwhelming majority of all Americans.
On numerous specific issues, the similarities are striking:
* Eighty-five percent of Hispanics seek "fair treatment for all, without prejudice or discrimination." So do 79% of all Americans.
* Far from celebrating their own heritages at the expense of U.S. history, most Hispanic parents -- 89% to be exact, compared with 85% of all parents -- hold that "to graduate from high school, students should be required to understand the common history and ideas that tie all Americans together."
* More than 80% of Hispanic-Americans and whites believe that it is "extremely important" to spend tax dollars on "educational opportunities for children."
* Eighty-one percent of Latinos and 83% of other whites wanted Congress to reform the welfare system. Merely 6 percentage points divide the two groups' views on Medicare reform.
* Even when it comes to affirmative action, the differences are much smaller than the similarities: only 38% of whites and 30% of Latinos want Congress to limit affirmative action.
* Asked about divisive issues such as race, the similarities are still considerable. Thirty-seven percent of Hispanics and 40% of other whites feel that these relations are holding steady.
True, one can find some significant disparities, for instance on abortion. And, yes, there are many subgroups, some with divergent views, that make up the overall Hispanic population. But these are exceptions to the norm.
James Davison Hunter and Carl Bowman conclude that "the majority of Americans do . . . not engage in identity politics . . . that insist that opinion is mainly a function of racial, ethnic or gender identity or identities rooted in sexual preference."
Moreover, the ways polls are typically released make it difficult to see that most of the differences we do find are based on class, not race or ethnicity. The fact, though, is that Hispanics are more likely than average Americans to be working class or poor. We know from other data that a significant proportion of the differences between African-Americans and whites on numerous issues disappear once we compare people of the same class. It would be very surprising if this did not hold true for Hispanic-Americans as well.
I am not saying that Hispanics will simply be assimilated or melt into some homogeneous white mush. American society will surely continue to change under the impact of integrating new groups. Hispanic cultures already influence our music, cuisine and language. Hispanics also make us more Catholic and family- and community- oriented than we would be without their influence.
All of these societal changes -- and the fact that we meet them part of the way -- merely makes it easier for them to join the American society.
Most American Hispanics are now first- or second-generation Americans. A quest to preserve one's heritage typically starts with the third generation. One can expect that as they become even more Americanized, they will also seek to nurture their subculture.
But this, too, is all-American.
Amitai Etzioni teaches sociology at George Washington University. His book, The Monochrome Society, was just published.