07/03/2014 08:50 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2014

The Beautiful Diversity of the World Cup


As the World Cup has completed its first round and is now well into the elimination rounds, passionate fans around the world have become familiar with the faces of players, if not their names. One could not but notice the racial diversity of the European teams -- at least one black player could be found on the starting rosters of most of the 12 European teams. Like the NBA's San Antonio Spurs revealed in the NBA finals, diversity in sports represents the welcome face of globalization.

For World Cup fans, that diversity has been nowhere greater than in the composition of the Latin American teams. Among the nine World Cup teams from Latin America, persons of indigenous, African and European descent and all the mixtures among them were well represented although the compositions of particular national teams varied widely. While Argentina's great team appears to be mostly of European origin, many of the colors of human diversity seem to be represented on the illustrious Brazilian team. Though overrepresented compared to the general population, nearly all of the Latin American teams have had black players as starters -- even Uruguay and Costa Rica -- and they were the majority on the Ecuadoran and Honduran teams and on the still-standing Colombian squad.

While racial diversity in Europe is new and the product of new immigration, for Latin America that diversity is centuries old (though diversity in the United States is the product of both old and new sources). Like the United States, indigenous Americans were colonized by Europeans, who later enslaved millions of Africans and forcibly transported them to work in America. Unlike the United States, European colonizers were predominately male and thus sought nonwhite partners and Latin American countries did not institute anti-miscegenation laws, factors which helped produce many persons of mixed race. According to Latin American national censuses and the America's Barometer survey, most of the nearly 600 million people in Latin America describe themselves as mestizo (mixed race) while more than 100 million identify as black or of African descent and another 40 million as indigenous.

For us Latinos in the United States, that diversity is familiar, The predominance of indigenous traits among Mexicans or African traits among Dominicans are notable, even though many of them identified themselves as white in the U.S. Census. Despite the contentions of Nate Cohen and others, Latinos are not predominately white simply because a slight majority checked off the white category in the U.S. Census. (In a May 21 New York Times op-ed "More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White," Cohen claims that the Census self-identification of Hispanics as white means that the may assimilate like Europeans and calls into question the claim that the United States is destined to become a majority-minority nation.)

However, the reality is much more complicated. Self-identification as white for many Latinos is not surprising simply because mixed race or Latino/Hispanic categories are not available in the U.S. Census question on race and the Census tells respondents that Hispanic or Latino is not a race. Furthermore, sociological research has demonstrated that many latinos may also identify as white, despite their actual color, because white represents a desirable American nationality or it is simply preferable to the other Census alternatives, particularly black. But a look at latino faces in the barrio or on the televised World Cup, paints a different picture.

At the same time, this diversity has also invited racism. Latinos and Latin Americans are not exempt from racism. Neither is soccer, Latin American-style or otherwise. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), which governs the World Cup, recognizes this ugly flaw in the (otherwise) beautiful game and has made great efforts to combat it. Soccer's beauty is enhanced when that diversity is recognized and appreciated. The same goes for Latinos and for the American society of which we are a part.

Edward Telles is professor of Sociology at Princeton University and has written extensively on race in Latin America and on Latinos in the United States, including Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil, Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation and Race, and Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race and Color in Latin America.