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Study: On Path to "Assimilation," Latino Immigrants Cross the Colorline

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With draconian anti-immigrant laws and deportation dragnets in high gear, it looks like America's racial barriers are hardening against the Latino community. But who draws those lines? Researchers from University of Illinois and Ohio State have examined the forms of racial identity that immigrants take on when moving into the "mainstream." While the Latino population incorporates a variety of colors, languages and cultures, institutional racism appears to be breaking up the community along color lines, in a new twist on the old story of "passing."

The researchers found that Latino immigrants' ability to "assimilate" into the broader American social and political culture depends in large part on the way they perceive and project their images in relation to whites. The study drew from immigrants' self-identification data in the 2003 New Immigrant Survey, which sampled adult immigrants who had recently obtained legal permanent status.

As the Latino population grows, said Ohio State sociologist Reanne Frank in a summary of the findings, "It is likely we will see change in our racial categories, but there will not be one uniform racial boundary around all Latinos."

The boundary may both divide and unite immigrants, sifting them into color-coded categories. "Some Latinos will be successful in the bid to be accepted as 'white'—usually those with lighter skin," Frank argued. "But for those with darker skin and those who are more integrated into U.S. society, we believe there will be a new Latino racial boundary forming around them."

Increasingly, the cost of incorporation into white society, and the economic opportunities it supposedly entails, means relinquishing the ethnic and racial identities of the outsider. The movement toward whiteness on the one hand is paralleled by a widening of the racial divide among Latinos, which then presses less-assimilated, often darker-skinned, peers into a more marginal position.

When the survey asked the respondents to choose a racial category, "more than three-quarters of respondents (79 percent) identified themselves as white, regardless of their skin color." Researchers interpreted this as a sign that Latinos were, in Frank's words, "attempting to push the boundaries of whiteness to include them, even if their skin color is darker."

But what's the rationale behind this supposed quest for whiteness? The study suggests that conscious and subconscious racial polarization can have a material impact on people's lives -- creating a self-perpetuating racialized hierarchy:

Researchers classified the skin color scale into four groups of comparable size and focused on the comparison between relatively lighter and darker skinned groups of respondents. Comparing earned annual income across matched pairs from different groups, findings showed that Latino immigrants with relatively darker skin earned, on average, $2,500 less per year than their lighter-skinned counterparts.

So the self-fulfilling prophecy of segregation rolls on. The research, however, reveals only one dimension of tension between immigration and assimilation -- the extent to which migrants buy into a racist social structure as they climb upward.

Yet the political response to anti-immigrant and anti-Latino racism could cut the other way as well: it could build new bridges not just among Latino immigrants of different nationalities and cultures, but between Latinos and immigrants of other ethnicities. As we saw with the 2006 immigration reform campaigns, it might even encourage cross-racial organizing of people of color bound by a civil rights struggle, whether they're native-born or new arrivals. Immigrants, and the children of immigrants, face the intersection of two trajectories: one moving vertically, in pursuit of elusive legitimacy and affluence; the other moving horizontally, building solidarity in an inclusive movement, effecting change on a different level.

A version of this post appears on Racewire.