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Race, Class, and the Two Melting Pots

Lessons to be learned from the diverging political paths of Asian and Hispanic Americans

by
Michael Lind
November 04, 2020
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

For a long time, I’ve suspected there are two melting pots, not one, in the United States. Some of the polling data from the election supports this idea.

In the past, immigrants to the United States tended over time to assimilate to the regional culture and dialect. Second- and third-generation German, Italian, Jewish, Polish, and Greek immigrants to Brooklyn would speak Brooklynese. Southern Jews would speak with a drawl and be on average more socially conservative than their Northern counterparts.

But the nationalization of American society has made social class, measured by education, more important than regional divides in culture and politics. Immigrant groups can be expected to assimilate to the politics and values of the educational/occupational stratum in which they are concentrated. The diverging political paths of Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans in the last few election cycles suggest this is happening.

In Texas, Donald Trump got only 26% of the Asian American vote in both 2016 and 2020, according to exit polls. While Asian American Texans were overwhelmingly supportive of Biden, the two groups of Texan voters that moved the most away from Trump between 2016 and 2020 were African Americans (from 11% to 8% for Trump) and non-Hispanic whites, presumably college-educated suburban whites (from 69% to 65% for Trump).

But Trump’s share of the Hispanic vote in Texas climbed. In 2016, Hispanics preferred Clinton 61%-34%. In this year’s election, the gap narrowed to 59%-40%. In Starr County in South Texas near the border, the most Hispanic county in the U.S., the Democratic lead collapsed from 60% in 2016 to around 5% in 2020, according to initial reports.

In Texas, where around 40% of the population is Hispanic, Trump’s share of the vote between 2016 and 2020 appears to have increased only with that group—from 34% to 40%. Trump did poorly with Hispanics in Arizona, but the trend in Texas was repeated elsewhere. In Florida, Trump’s share of the Hispanic vote rose from 35% in 2016 to nearly half in 2020. Compared to 2016, the Democratic advantage with Hispanics dropped from 40% to 16% in Georgia and from 41% to 24% in Ohio.

The Democrats still get a majority of the Hispanic vote, to be sure. But the Democratic narrative that outrage at Trump’s immigration and border enforcement policies would create a landslide of Hispanic support for Biden and a “permanent Democratic majority” has ignominiously collapsed, according to CNN.

Do differing levels of educational attainment explain these electoral trends in Texas and elsewhere? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016, 54% of Asian Americans age 25 and older had bachelor’s degrees, compared to only 35% of non-Hispanic whites and only 15% of Hispanics. (21% of African Americans who were 25 years and older had bachelor’s degrees.)

Milton Himmelfarb once observed that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” But as the Democrats have become the party of high earners and the highly educated among whites, the apparent contradiction has disappeared. More and more ex-Republican Episcopalians (and post-Christian secular Americans) now vote like Jews.

While authorized Hispanic immigrants tend to become citizens through the family unification program, Asian Americans are overrepresented in the college- and skilled-worker pipelines to green cards and citizenship. Through diversity training on campus and in large, mostly liberal corporations, they are socialized into progressive culture and ideology—including, paradoxically, the idea that they belong to an “overrepresented” minority. Meanwhile, it appears that longer-resident and second-generation Hispanics without college educations are assimilating to the norms and culture of non-college-educated working-class whites in their regions.

As a fifth-generation native of central Texas, I am not surprised by any of this. I grew up with Texans of Mexican descent whose ancestors had come in successive waves, from the Spanish colonial era to the early 20th-century migration caused by the Mexican Revolution to the recent, post-1960s immigrants. Many old-stock, assimilated, and intermarried Mexican Texans were treated as ordinary whites, sometimes with Anglicized pronunciations of their names—Salazar as “Sa-LAY-zar,” for example.

Because Americans tend to marry others of the same social class, this suggests that two melting pots might be bubbling away in the United States—a small, college-educated, professional-managerial overclass melting pot, largely white and Asian American and leaning Democratic; and a larger high-school-educated, working-class melting pot, largely non-Hispanic white and Hispanic and leaning Republican. It remains to be seen whether African Americans—an overwhelmingly united voting bloc half a century after the Civil Rights revolution that made them the most loyal Democratic constituency—divide along class lines to join one of the two American melting pots as well.

Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He has a master’s degree from Yale and has taught at Harvard. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.

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