Excerpted From: Rachel F. Moran, Reflecting on the Foundations of Latinx Civil Rights: Looking Back and Looking Forward, 10 Texas A&M Law Review 759 (Summer, 2023) (93 Footnotes) (Full Document)


RachelFMoran.jpegI am grateful to Dean Kevin Johnson for his thoughtful and generous review of my scholarship on Latinx civil rights. Dean Johnson has been tremendously influential in the field, and he has led by example through his long tenure as dean at UC Davis School of Law. So his insightful assessment of my contributions is especially meaningful. Like all good retrospectives, Dean Johnson's got me thinking--not only about the past but also the future. So much has changed since I began writing about Latinx issues at the beginning of my career, and yet much remains the same. Because demography is often presumed to be destiny for the Latinx community, I would like to share a few thoughts about how this population has evolved in recent decades and how those changes pose new challenges and opportunities. It seems especially important to recognize the transformations because the law and policy landscape for Latinx remains relatively stagnant and not particularly well-suited to adapt to evolving circumstances.

I. The Changing Latinx Population

When I began writing about the Latinx community in the mid-1980s, it looked very different than it does today. In 1980, 14.6 million people identified as Latinx. That number grew to 22.4 million in 1990 and 35.3 million in 2000. By 2000, the Latinx population accounted for 12.5% of all Americans, and a few years later, the Census Bureau announced that Latinx had surpassed Blacks as the largest racial or ethnic group in the country. The pace of growth was astonishing, reflecting the combined effect of substantial immigration rates and comparatively high birth rates. The size of the Latinx population has continued to increase in the intervening decades. In 2022, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of Latinx in the United States surpassed 62 million, up from 50.5 million in 2010, and represented 19% of America's residents.

In fact, Latinx generated more than half of the population growth in the United States from 2010 to 2021. During that time, the increase was driven primarily by birth rates, rather than immigration, a reversal of the pattern observed in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2021, Latinx had cemented their position as the single largest racial or ethnic minority group, now over one-third larger than the Black population, which stood at 14%. Latinx dominance among racial and ethnic minority groups will become even more pronounced in the coming years. According to U.S. Census projections, Latinx will make up 24.6% of the American population by 2045, nearly twice the proportion of Blacks at 13.1%. At the same time, non-Hispanic Whites will become a minority at 49.7%.

With this growth has come heterogeneity in the Latinx population. In 1990, individuals of Mexican origin accounted for 61% of all Latinx, while Puerto Ricans made up 12%, Cubans 5%, and other groups 17%. By 2000, the Mexican-origin share had dropped to 58.5%, Puerto Rican to 9.6%, and Cuban to 3.5%, while other Latinx grew to 28.4%. Approximately two decades later, these statistics have remained largely stable. The national origin groups experiencing the most rapid growth between 2010 and 2021 were Venezuelans, Dominicans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans. This range of national origin groups prompted some commentators to conclude that Latinx is a pan-ethnic identity largely born of the desire for political recognition, especially in the civil rights arena, rather than of any cohesive sense of community.

Since the 1980s, the Latinx population has been relatively youthful. In 1980, 40% of Latinx were under the age of 18, compared to 26% of non-Hispanic Whites. By 1990, nearly 70% of the Latinx population was under 35, compared to about 50% of the non-Hispanic population. Only 5% were over 65 compared to 13% of the non-Hispanic population, and almost 40% were under the age of 20 compared to just 28% of the non-Hispanic population. Although the median age of Latinx has been rising since the 1980s, they remain younger on average than the rest of the population. In 2014, for example, the proportion of Latinx under 18 was 32% compared to 19% for non-Hispanic Whites, 20% for Asians, and 26% for Blacks. As a result, the median age for Latinx that year was just 28, while the median age for non-Hispanic Whites was 43, Asians was 36, and Blacks was 33. In contrast to older generations of Latinx, millennials are more likely to be born in the United States, to speak English, and to be of Mexican origin. Given their citizenship status and language fluency, these youth should be well-positioned to participate fully in political life as they reach voting age.

Despite rapid growth, the Latinx population remained regionally concentrated during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1990, for instance, nearly 90% of Latinx resided in just 10 states. The four with the highest percentage could be found along the nation's southern border: Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. In recent decades, Latinx have been moving to states with small Hispanic-origin populations. Even in 2020, however, just nine states accounted for 73% of all Latinx residing in the United States. Reflecting that ongoing regional concentration, Latinx became the largest racial or ethnic group in California in 2014 and in Texas in 2021. In addition, they became the majority population in 101 of 3140 counties in the United States; of these, 87 were located in border states like Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.

As this brief overview suggests, the Latinx population has evolved significantly since I began writing about these issues in the mid-1980s. The sheer size and continued growth of this constituency suggests that it will wield increasing influence in the coming years. Beyond the numbers, however, there are other important factors to consider. Some commentators worry that the Latinx population is wrongly perceived as monolithic and primarily concerned with immigration. As a result, other pressing issues are left unaddressed. Others predict that the heterogeneity of Latinx will make it difficult to develop a coherent agenda based on a sense of shared fate. Still others believe that the Latinx population continues to be viewed as regional and thus is given short shrift at the national level. Meanwhile, some advocates see regional concentration as a virtue because it gives Latinx unprecedented opportunities to shape state and local policies that affect their everyday lives. Whatever the case, one barrier to full participation persists. Despite a substantial increase in the number of Latinx running for political office, they remain severely underrepresented at every level of government. Latinx hold fewer than 2% of federal and local elected positions, well below their nearly 20% share of the population.

[. . .]

As I hope this brief response to Dean Johnson's essay makes clear, despite years of work by many Latinx scholars, numerous challenges lie ahead. Unfortunately, failed immigration reform efforts have coincided with crimped civil rights protections. Because of these combined shortcomings, policymakers are ill-equipped to address emerging circumstances, including increased immigration from Latin America and a predictable rise in anti-Latinx sentiment. In coming decades, new generations of scholars and advocates must build on foundational work by proposing creative reforms that confront structural realities and advance individual opportunities. These innovations will be critical not just for Latinx but for a nation that finds itself in a transforming world.

Professor of Law, Texas A&M University School of Law.