Within hours of polls closing on the East Coast on the final day of the election cycle this year, newscasters had already begun discussing “the Latinx vote.” Early results out of Miami had shown a surprising turnout for Donald Trump, extinguishing Joe Biden’s hopes of winning Florida. Within hours, another result proved surprising: Massive turnout in Atlanta and its surrounding areas had put Georgia in play for Biden. Suddenly, the conversation shifted to “the Black vote.”
There’s a latent racial essentialism in the ideas of “the Black vote” or “the Latinx vote”—a implicit notion that people think and vote the same way. There’s also another problem—talking about the two votes as separate communities erases the people who transcend those two categorizations. Afro-Latinx communities exist in every country in Latin America, and hundreds of thousands of voters in the U.S. are Black Latinxs.
While pollsters collect reams of data on voters’ demographic information, almost all surveys consider “Latinx,” “Black,” and “White” as separate categories, even though Latinx is not a race. Multiple researchers and firms Prism reached out to confirmed that they do not collect disaggregated data on Latinx respondents.
“I think we are missing so much by not considering [Afro-Latinxs’] preferences, because they may have a very unique perspective on race and politics in this country,” says Andrea Benjamin, an assistant professor of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma, who studies the political interrelationships between Black and Latinx communities. “Are they more or less receptive to Spanish speaking ads? Are they more or less supportive of policies that have typically been used to appeal to Black voters? How are they unique in their political political preferences?”
When pollsters decide to ignore Afro-Latinxs as their own unique voting community, the justification is often that Afro-Latinx voters don’t exist in large enough numbers to affect an election one way or the other. But, as the 2020 election has shown, political polling—and political parties—can fail when they think of Latinxs as a monolith. Even though Biden seems to have performed even better than Hillary Clinton nationwide, he seriously underperformed Clinton’s and other Democrats’ results in Miami and South Texas. Those surprising results has brought new attention to the specific Latinx communities in those regions, and has finally brought people around to the realization: Because there is no single Latinx community, there is not really such a thing as “the Latino vote.”
Dash Harris is an Afro-Panamanian documentary filmmaker who created Negro, a docuseries exploring race and identity across the Americans through interviews with Black people across the hemisphere. She says she has little patience with talking about “the Latinx vote.”
“It’s just not a conversation that is based in reality,” Harris says. “I don’t know what a ‘Latino’ is besides a geographic signifier—it describes where someone comes from. Latina, Latino, Latinx—it’s not a race … I don’t know who they’re talking about, but the bottom line is they’re not talking about me. And so I don’t pay much attention to it.”
For Harris, the issue is more than just erasure. The trouble with conceptualizing “the Latinx vote” has its origins in the deeper problems of conceptualizing what it means to be Latinx. She explains that in both the U.S. and Latin America, mythologizing all Latin Americans as a single race can obscure the ways white supremacy and anti-Black colonial hierarchies exist in the Americas. That’s why, for Harris, any conversation about politics in the Latin American diaspora needs to be clear-eyed about the fact that many U.S. Latinxs are white and may share the preferences of other white people in the U.S.
“It’s just as important to disaggregate white people when talking about the Latino vote,” she says.
This past election is proof of that fact. In the two places where Trump performed best among Latinxs—Miami and South Texas—a high percentage of Latinxs self-report as white. In the US Census, the section on race and ethnicity first asks someone to mark whether they are “Hispanic or Latino,” and then goes on to ask them their race. In Miami-Dade County, over 72% of people reported themselves as Latino and over 75% of people reported themselves as white. (Trump did not win in Miami-Dade, but did greatly improve on his 2016 result). In Zapata County, a county Trump won in an upset in South Texas, over 94% of people reported their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino and over 98% of people reported their race as white.
These percentages are significant and make these regions distinct. Nationwide, just 53% of people who marked “Hispanic or Latino” on the last census go on to mark their race as white.
While Harris thinks it could be useful to disaggregate survey data on Latinxs based on race, she says she does worry about pollsters and researchers misunderstanding Black Latin Americans. “They’re going to get it wrong. My first instinct is that they should mind their own business,” she says, laughing. “But I do think there [is a big] first step in just naming things. I’m a big believer in naming.”
Part of the problem, Harris says, will be using the right names. For instance, the term “Afro-Latinx” can be complicated. According to a Pew survey in 2014 (one of the few surveys that considered Afro-Latinidad), as many as one in four people in the U.S. who identify as Latinx identify as Afro-Latinx. However, less than 20% of those same people identified themselves as Black in that same survey. And almost 40% of them identified as white.
“Even Afro-Latino is coming to mean non-Black,” Harris says.
Complexities aside, some researchers say they have ambitions to begin collecting data on Black Latinx communities.
“This is something we are working to explore further in coming years,” says Julia O’Hanlon, a communications associate with the “Hispanic Trends” team at Pew.