The rapid growth of the U.S. Hispanic market these past couple of decades is messing up just about everything regarding dominant norms on race and ethnicity in the United States. It was once so easy. The post-war era ushered in an ethnic/race system of classification of what Berkeley historian David Hollinger has called the identity pentagon of Black, White, Brown, Red or Yellow. All Americans could be placed into their respective color bucket and that was that. Hispanics were Brown, and could clearly be associated as foreign and maybe not quite "American".
Well, as Hispanics have grown from 5% to 16% of the population, this system is starting to be stretched, pulled and frayed. See, Hispanics are an ethnicity, not a race, and as such some are White, Brown, Black, Yellow and I am sure we can find some Red as well. As Hispanics grew and grew, and different organizations started studying them (e.g. Pew Hispanic Center, U.S. Census, National Academies of Sciences, private sector companies like mine) the traditional ethnicity assumptions started to be more finely defined. There are certainly central tendencies of Hispanics based on cultural beliefs, but they defy color classification.
If Hispanics could be of any color, then how do we classify them? Worst yet, Hispanics can be rich or poor, speak Spanish or English, be conservative or liberal (Social conservatives who are family oriented and religious or union workers who march for civil rights), Republican or Democrat (Senator Rubio or Senator Menendez). They can be right "off the boat" or have been in what is the U.S. longer than George Washington's dad. They are not even sure if they want to be called "Hispanic" or "Latino".
As the U.S. Hispanic consumer market became more defined, companies like Proctor and Gamble, Coke, and Kraft started to break down the market on country of origin basis, or level of acculturation, or a more sophisticated segmentation. The simplistic associations we historically applied to ethnic identity are being challenged and result in a messy notion that ethnicity is not a predetermining factor of total identity. Could this be true of others?
Hispanics are pesky. There are clearly various cultural distinctions that are core to their identity. For many there is linguistic distinction (they speak Spanish). Yet on many issues, including illegal immigration, they are not uniform on opinion (Hispanics are divided on the impact of illegal immigration in the U.S.). They elected Bill Clinton twice and George Bush twice.
To make it worse, the Hispanic population started to grow during the post civil rights era in the U.S.. African Americans in particular were making large strides, including in educational attainment (particularly women) and election to public office (including the presidency!). The net result which can be seen influencing overall attitudes toward ethnic/racial identity (In a 2010 Essence study, 83% of all non-Hispanic white respondents, women 18-64, think that interracial marriage is acceptable for their kids). Could these pesky Hispanics be contributing to an overall shift in ethnic/racial identity norms?
Now that the basic tenets of racial/ethnic identity are under attack, will we have to revert to some notion that individuals possess the ability to reason for themselves, create their own identities from their cultural and ethnic backgrounds and their own free will? How American is that?