Since the 1960s the United States has experienced significant demographic changes due to increased immigration from Latin America and Asia. In the last few years, the Census Bureau has even predicted that by 2050, the U.S. could be a "majority minority" nation. While that claim is disputed by a number of social scientists, including RSF author Richard Alba, these conversations nevertheless reveal the complexity and shifting nature of racial identity in the US today.
Visiting scholar Dina Okamoto (Indiana University), also the author of the RSF book Redefining Race, is currently studying how new immigrants from Latin America and Asia navigate their contact with native-born groups and negotiate their identities within the context of the US racial hierarchy. In a new interview with RSF, she discussed some of her ongoing research (with Cristina Mora) on how panethnic identities are formed, focusing specifically on how Asian American and Hispanic media from the 1970s and 80s influenced conceptions of panethnicity for these groups. (Covers left to right: Agenda, May/June 1977; Bridge, Spring/Summer 1980; La Luz, March/April 1975; Gidra, January 1971)
Q. Part of your ongoing research, including your book Redefining Race, explores how panethnic identities take shape. How did "Asian American" and "Hispanic" emerge as panethnic identities in the US after immigration reform in the 1960s? What are boundary claims?
Okamoto: Asian American and Hispanic emerged as panethnic identities in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to the efforts of key organizational actors, including ethnic leaders, community members, and activists. We often think about the panethnic categories and identities of “Asian American” and “Hispanic” as being solely created by the U.S. Census Bureau, but ethnic and immigrant leaders also had a hand in defining their own communities. In fact, ethnic leaders persuaded the federal government to maintain certain categories and to change existing ones. They pushed for a Hispanic category because not all people from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other parts of Latin America identified as white. Ethnic leaders also lobbied to include South Asians in the Asian/Pacific Islander category, and to maintain existing national-origin designations such as Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, and Vietnamese within the broader Asian/Pacific Islander category.
Boundary claims are the discursive practices that assert the existence of a new racial or ethnic boundary. In our research, we wanted to understand how ethnic leaders and community members defined and articulated these newly-emerging panethnic identities, and the practices they used to assert such claims. We were interested in the era of the 1970s because it was a time when ethnic communities were constructing and negotiating these new identities, before the categories of Asian American and Hispanic were officially adopted by the U.S. Census and used by other government agencies, private industry, and the media.
It is important to note that the formation of these new categories and identities was happening within the context of federal immigration reform, when the U.S. eliminated national-origin quotas, allowing for more diverse and increased flows of immigrants to the U.S. from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean. Despite the growing diversity of Asian and Hispanic populations in the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s, panethnic identities and labels still emerged and were used as ways to gain attention from policymakers and political officials.
Q. In looking at Asian American and Hispanic panethnic magazines published in the 1970s and 1980s, you found a number of similarities between the ways that these media outlets negotiated panethnicity. What did they have in common, and where did they diverge?
A surprising result was that both sets of magazines used similar practices as they began to form and substantiate new panethnic identities. Specifically, we found that the definitions of “Asian American” and “Hispanic” were broad and inconsistent. We had expected that when articles discussed heritage, culture, ethnicity, or race, we would find clear definitions of the panethnic group. But few articles in our dataset (less than 1 percent) provided an exact definition of who belonged to these groups. This practice of using broad definitions allowed these categories to be inclusive.
Another common practice used to substantiate new categories was the use of a prototype. Chinese and Japanese Americans were the core ethnic groups represented within the Asian magazines while Mexican Americans received the most coverage in the Hispanic publications. Other ethnic groups such as Vietnamese and Koreans (in the Asian case) and Puerto Ricans and Cubans (in the Hispanic case), received much less attention. This use of specific groups as prototypes allowed the new category to be intelligible to outsiders, but could also alienate other groups whose interests were not as central to the panethnic project.
Finally, both sets of magazines used group comparisons to bolster new panethnic groups. These comparisons were made with other racial groups to elaborate claims about the characteristics, status, and positioning of “Asians” and “Hispanics,” ultimately helping to define panethnic groups by suggesting similarities and differences with other communities. The comparisons provided narratives of what the new panethnic groups aspired to be and what they believe they deserved.
The divergence between the Hispanic and Asian cases comes from the content of their claims. While Asian Americans and Hispanics used similar practices to bolster, negotiate, and construct these new panethnic identities and categories, they did so by making different kinds of claims and focusing on different issues. Asian Americans focused their attention on foreign politics and international issues, with an emphasis on non-institutional political change, while Hispanics were concerned with issues related to U.S. politics and history, with an emphasis on Hispanic representation in formal politics. This divergence stems from the different histories of the two groups, as well as their differing experiences of race and racial exclusion in the U.S.
Q. Scholars have long debated where new immigrant groups fall in the racial hierarchy of the US and how that position in the hierarchy changes over time. How do the panethnic magazines of the 1970s and 80s help shed light on the ways that Asian Americans and Hispanic populations navigate identity in the US today, forty or fifty years later?
In many ways, Asian Americans and Hispanics today are still addressing some of the same issues that they did back in the 1970s. Asians and Hispanics in the 1970s may have been closer to the position of blacks in the racial hierarchy, but over time, due to immigration policies in 1965 that selected for more highly-educated immigrants from Asia and Latin America, Asian Americans and Hispanics today fall somewhere in between whites and blacks within the racial hierarchy. While Asians as a group may have higher levels of household income than whites, Asians still fall short in terms of social acceptance and political representation in the U.S. We also know from recent research and the current political climate that both Asian Americans and Hispanics continue to face issues related to their outsider status as “foreigners” and have been viewed as threats to American society. In the 1970s, both groups were contesting the idea that they were not American (despite their long histories in the U.S.) and the notion that they could not successfully integrate into or make important contributions to American society. Overall, while Asian Americans and Hispanics have made gains over the decades, they still face some of the same issues, and because they do so, it is not surprising that they continue to organize and identify along panethnic lines. I expect that the labels of Asian American and Hispanic will remain a part of the American landscape as long as inequalities based on these categories continue.