Report: Racial Identity Influencing Latino Voters According to a recent report, some Latinos in the U.S. identify more with whites than with blacks, which could affect voting trends among the minority group. Duke University professor Paula McClain and Xavier DeSouza Briggs, a professor at MIT, discuss racial attitudes of Latino immigrants in the South.

Report: Racial Identity Influencing Latino Voters

Report: Racial Identity Influencing Latino Voters

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According to a recent report, some Latinos in the U.S. identify more with whites than with blacks, which could affect voting trends among the minority group. Duke University professor Paula McClain and Xavier DeSouza Briggs, a professor at MIT, discuss racial attitudes of Latino immigrants in the South.

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Michel is away.

In the weeks ahead, the primary race moves to states such as Florida and North Carolina with large numbers of Hispanic voters. The candidates are working hard to appeal to this demographic, focusing their stump speeches on immigration reform, health care and the economy. Two recent studies give us a window into racial attitudes that could affect the outcome of the primary races.

With us are Professor Paula McClain of Duke University and Professor Xavier DeSouza Briggs of MIT. Professor McClain recently completed the first phase of a study about Hispanic attitudes in the South. And Professor Briggs is the author of a study on interracial friendships.

Welcome to you both. Good to have you with us.

Professor PAULA McCLAIN (Political Science, Duke University): Thanks, Lynn.

Professor XAVIER De SOUZA BRIGGS (Sociology and Urban Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: Professor McClain, let me start with you. Your study focuses on the South, you've started in Durham, North Carolina, and your preliminary finding is that Latino immigrants tend to identify with whites, as I understand it. What do you mean by that?

Prof. McCLAIN: Correct. We ask them which group, a series of groups - blacks, whites, Asians, whatever, do they feel they have the most in common with and then, corollary, which ones they have the least in common with. What we find is that Latino immigrants - and ours was basically an immigrant study at this point, see that they have the most in common with whites and the least in common with blacks. And when we look at the racial identifications in the second phase of the study, which looks at resurveying Durham, picking up Memphis and picking up Little Rock, we find that a large proportion of the Latino immigrants racially identify themselves as white.

NEARY: Now, you made that distinction, an immigrant population, and one of the things that becomes difficult when you're talking about Latinos as a group is you're talking about a number of different nationalities...

Prof. McCLAIN: Yes.

NEARY: You're talking about people have been here a long time, people who haven't been here a long time. So in the case of Durham, who are we talking about, first of all?

Prof. McCLAIN: Primarily Mexican immigrants. There are about two-thirds of the immigrants into Durham are, in fact, from Mexico and not the traditional sending states from Mexico, but more from the south, south of Mexico City. And then we have, the rest of them are made up of central Americans and South Americans.

NEARY: And are these recent immigrants to the area?

Prof. McCLAIN: Yes. Yes, although we do have some who have been in the area for 10, 15 years, but most of them are within the last five or six years.

NEARY: Now, we've mentioned already that a preliminary finding is that Latino immigrants tend to identify with whites but also more than half of the Latino immigrants in your study tend to have an unfavorable view of African-Americans. Now, is this an attitude that they are picking up from whites in the South?

Prof. McCLAIN: Well, we actually tested that and it doesn't appear that it's a transference of white prejudice onto Latino immigrants, because whites in Durham had far fewer stereotypes of black Americans than did Latino immigrants. One of the things I think that people don't understand is that many of the immigrants are coming from countries that have a racial hierarchy themselves. And so it's not like they're coming into the country with a racial tabula rasa; they already have a notion of who's on top and who's on bottom. And when they come into the country, they see how they position themselves relative to our particular racial structure.

NEARY: That's interesting.

Prof. McCAIN: And they essentially are positioning themselves closer to whites than to blacks.

NEARY: Interesting. Because this is all happening in the South where, of course, the racial dynamic has always been black and white.

Prof. McCLAIN: Yes, yes, so we have the introduction of a third population, one that has no history in most of the South - I mean, excluding Cubans in Florida. So you have this new population with no sense of the historical nature of the dynamics between blacks and whites in the South who are now players in this black-white dynamic.

NEARY: All right. Let's turn to you now, Professor Briggs. You studied interracial friendships in 29 cities around the country and looked at how and where these friendships develop. And you say that people now tend to meet each other more in the workplace than where they live. Is that a change? Is that a fundamental change?

Prof. BRIGGS: Well, Lynn, you know, this is a - first of all, I should say, this is a different face of a changing country, as compared to Paula's study of the South, which is so interesting. My study looked at all regions of the country. It was focused on the predictors of having a friend of another race. And as you just highlighted, it underscores the importance of the workplace as a social site, as a place for connection. And also of the civic arena, being somehow active in a community.

Those are the two big drivers in terms of having a friend of another race. We do have some evidence on your question and that is that the workplace has become more important socially over time. It's even become a place for people escape to. For example, if they want to get out of the house and the domestic problems and domestic challenges and whatnot. The workplace can be a place for deep connection and identity. And not just for men, according to the tradition, but for both sexes.

NEARY: To what degree does education and class affect the way people make interracial friendships?

Prof. BRIGGS: Well, they're really important for a couple of different reasons. And you know, we start to think about this. I think we naturally think about this in terms of the choices individuals are making, but some of the choices are structured for us. In other words, we begin making choices in a game that already has some constraints to it. It matters what part of the country you're living in.

Most white Americans still live in regions of the country that are majority white by a very large margin. They're mostly not living in L.A. or New York or Miami - or even Durham. And number two, they go to work in certain workplaces, they may live in communities that are relatively segregated so their schools are segregated and their civic lives are somewhat segregated. Organized religion is still highly segregated, for the most part, but you are more likely to be engaged in civic life in America if you're middle or upper income and more educated, as supposed to poor or working class. And that affects your opportunity for contact with people of other races.

NEARY: If you're just joining us, we are talking with Xavier Briggs of MIT and Professor Paula McClain of Duke, and we're talking about racial attitudes and how they could relate to voting patterns. And both of you - I wonder if we could move this discussion now to that very issue of how your studies might - what your studies might tell us about voting patterns and the way it might affect the Latino vote?

First of all, Professor McClain, any conclusions that you've drawn that, from your study about how Latinos may vote in this election?

Prof. McCLAIN: Well, not only from my study but from other studies on inter-group relations between blacks and Latinos, find that the negative attitudes on the part of Latinos, about blacks, means that it's much more difficult for them to vote for a black candidate than for a white candidate. In fact, what's been asked in this election is the question of whether or not whites will vote for Barack Obama. I think the corollary question is whether or not a sizeable number of Latinos will vote for Obama. And I think that that's a difficult population for him to crack, far more difficult, I think, in many ways than for him to crack for more highly educated whites in the country. And I think for Obama, he's probably going to have far more success with more highly educated, higher income Latinos, than with lower educated, lower income Latinos. Because the groups that are bumping up against each other in these urban areas whether it's the South or around the country are low-income blacks and low-income Latinos and low-income Latino immigrants. And these are the groups where most of the tension exists. And these are the groups, or this is the group of Latinos that Obama probably is least likely to receive votes from.

NEARY: Professor Briggs, what is your take on this?

Prof. BRIGGS: I guess I, you know, I invite you and your listeners to have this image. You know, when we're worried about the immediate vote and this year's election, and there's every reason we should be at the moment, that's like worrying about the waves breaking on the shore. We care about the waves and we should understand them.

When you ask questions like how do people identify racially; how do they think of themselves as part of a larger hierarchy; how do they, as Paula said a few minutes ago, bring a history with them from their own country - some sense of a hierarchy, of a racial identity. When we ask who they form friendships with and whether they are part of civic life, we're looking at the deeper currents in the ocean, if you will.

And over the long haul, those are the things we need to understand. And then we should use each election and each window on these, you know, longer run questions, including the really interesting candidacy of Barack Obama and his competition with Hillary Clinton and others, to address really immediate questions about how people will likely sort of lean politically.

NEARY: And, you know, one other thing - and that is, we've seen already, so far, that Barack Obama is attracting younger voters. And I wonder if we can talk about the generational differences both in the Latinos that perhaps you've been studying and will be studying, Professor McClain, and just in terms of some of these social institutions that you've been talking about, Professor Briggs. I mean, we know that younger people really do have different attitudes about race, don't they? And a lot of it is based on the fact that they've probably spent a lot more time with a lot more diverse groups of people.

Prof. BRIGGS: That's absolutely right. I mean, on one hand, you have a double-edged sword here. You know, the older generation in American life, Tom Brokaw and Robert Putnam and others have called the great civic generation - they're more likely to vote, more likely to be active in organizations - go on down the list.

They are also the most racially insular and racially conservative in American life, when you compare them to young Americans. Young Americans are more likely to have friends of a different race, to have liberal attitudes toward race. To have no particular qualms about members of other races holding leadership positions, and so on. And those are, you know, reasons to be optimistic about this.

NEARY: Professor McClain, any last thoughts on that?

Prof. McCLAIN: I think Xavier is absolutely correct. I would only add that what we know about younger people voting is that one cannot put all of one's political stock in turnout among younger voters. Because they may be energized, they may show up for rallies, but the proof is in the pudding as to whether or not they turn out.

So both candidates, Clinton or Obama, are really going to have to draw on that generation that we know does, in fact, register to vote and does, in fact, go out to vote.

Prof. BRIGGS: And Paula, I think we have to add that, you know, that the Obama candidacy and others sort of really trying to expand the ranks of Americans who are engaged in the process, is also important for that reason, for drawing people into public life.

NEARY: Xavier DeSouza Briggs is an associate professor of sociology and urban planning at MIT. And Paula McClain is a professor of political science at Duke University.

Thanks to both of you for joining us today. It was good to have you.

Prof. BRIGGS: Thank you.

Prof. McCLAIN: Thank you very much, Lynn.

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