comments on rodríguez-muñiz’s “figures of the future: latino civil rights and the politics of demographic change”

Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz recently published an excellent book on the population politics of Latino civil right advocates: Figures of the Future: Latino Civil Rights and the Politics of Demographic Change. I had the chance to comment on the book at the Social Science History Association meetings, alongside Emily Merchant and Debra Thompson. Below are my comments for those interested in learning more about the book.

Earlier this month, the Urban Institute released a report on the extent of undercounting in the 2020 Census. The study was covered widely, as in an NPR story with the headline (since modified): “2020 census likely undercounted Black people, Latinos, study says.” Stories about the undercount cited experts – demographers, and quantitative methodologists – but also civil rights leaders. For example, the Washington Post’s story on the study quoted Arturo Vargas from the Latino organization NALEO Education Fund on the undercount being most severe in cities with larger immigrant populations. Vargas said:

“There was a definite undercount of immigrant cities, and I will argue that that was one of the goals of the Trump administration — to make immigrants invisible or nonexistent, and by not counting them, that was one way to do that.”

Readers of Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz’s fantastic new book, Figures of the Future: Latino Civil Rights and the Politics of Demographic Change will recognize Vargas’s statement as the newest iteration of a decades-long project. For years, Latino civil rights organizations have fought to get Latinos counted, and – just as importantly – to make those counts matter in politics. While the Census Bureau’s official counts directly influence political representation (by shaping the number and distribution of legislative districts), the politics of population extends far beyond the apportionment process. As Figures of the Future shows, Latino civil rights advocates engaged in processes of temporal politics to turn counts of current population and projections of future population into political claims. Recognizing the power of these numbers, Latino civil rights leaders also invested heavily in promoting the Census itself, encouraging Latino participation to combat the disparate undercount observed in every Census which they argued weakened claims for Latino civil rights.

Since I have the honor of speaking first at today’s event, I’m going to spend a bit more time detailing some of the main arguments of the book for those of you who may not have had the chance to read it before offering a few reflections and questions, and then turning it over to the other panelists for deeper analysis.

At the center of Figures of the Future are a handful of specific numbers and the civil rights groups that attempted to translate those numbers into political power. Figures of the Future follows civil rights activists from their interpretive work in the wake of the 2010 Census, through their get out the vote efforts in the 2012 election, continued lobbying attempts for comprehensive immigration reform, and then their grappling with the aftermath of the 2016 election and the first two years of the Trump administration. Most prominent among the numbers that these activists engage with are the total count of Latinos in the United States from the 2010 Census (50.5 Million), the number of Latinos turning 18 every month (50,000), the percent of voters who were Latino in national elections (both projected and observed), and the projection that by 2050 more than 30% of the US population would be Latino. The numbers become tools for Latino advocates to engage in three forms of temporal politics: forecasting, foreshadowing, and forewarning. These three “temporal tactics” target our collective “temporal imaginary” – in particular, our collectively imagined future.

Forecasting refers to telling a story about the future, in this case, a story of economic, civic, and cultural gains from demographic diversity. This story was designed by activists to specifically combat white Americans’ “demographobia”, fear of changing racial demographics (sometimes summarized as “the Browning of America”, or the idea of a future “majority minority” population).  

Foreshadowing attempts to connect present events to this kind of future. In particular, Latino advocates publicized an estimate that 12.2 million Latinos would vote in the 2012 election, representing 10% of the total electorate. These 12 million votes would represent the awakening of a long predicted “sleeping giant” of Latino political power, one that would only grow over coming years as more Latinos came of age and began to vote.

This foreshadowing in turn led to forewarning: arguing that politicians would need to address the priorities of Latinos now to avoid a political crisis soon. Specifically, civil rights leaders argued that the Republican party must support bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform or risk losing the increasingly large and important Latino vote for generations.

So, to summarize: Latino civil rights groups forecast a utopian future where the growing Latino population produced economic and social gains for all, foreshadowed the arrival of this future in present electoral outcomes, and forewarned the future consequences for politicians who ignored this demographic now.

But.

Despite their best efforts – efforts to get Latinos to participate in the Census, to vote in national elections, to lobby legislators to pass immigration reform – the undercount persists. Latino turnout underperformed expectations. And, tragically, comprehensive immigration reform failed. The Republican party turned away from any pretense of moderation around immigration and, especially with the nomination of Donald Trump in 2016, embraced full-throated anti-Latino nativism. Despite (or perhaps because of) that embrace, Trump won the 2016 election, and did so with a surprising amount of Latino support (not anywhere near a majority, but in a narrative game built on beating expectations, Trump’s 28% stood out as a shocking figure, right in line with Romney’s share in 2012, despite their radically different stances on key issues and Trump’s racist rhetoric). What happened? And what happens next?

The final empirical chapter of the book follows civil rights groups as they grapple with the Trump administration and the changing shape of American politics. The book documents a shift in temporal tactics – while these groups had leaned into forewarning in the 2012 election, and in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform right after, these groups backed away in 2017-2018. White backlash, already on full display, seemed to dampen the perceived value of threatening politicians and political parties with more distant demographic futures. And the relatively unchanging share of Latino support for Trump made futile attempts to foreshadow a near-term political crisis. If even Trump can win 30% of Latinos, what does the GOP have to worry about?

The conclusion steps back to reflect on these dynamics. What can we learn from the shifting fortunes of these “figures of the future” and the temporal tactics used to make them politically relevant now? The book ends with a plea for contingency. For example, we do not yet know whether the Latino population will become an increasingly coherent panethnic political coalition, perhaps converging towards nearly unified support of the Democratic party as the GOP continues its descent into white nationalism. Or, the always-already heterogeneous individuals and groups under the label of Latino may continue to split their support, with the GOP maintaining sizable support from Latinos, distributed unequally by ethnicity, class, geography, and more. Racial categories and identifications themselves may undergo continued shifts. If studying narratives of demographic inevitability tells us anything, it’s that the future remains to be written.

I’ll end my summary here and move into a couple questions. As I hope you can tell, I found the book fascinating, compelling, and very clear. And also, tragic. Although the book does not take this exact framing, one could read the story of Latino civil rights groups and their temporal tactics in the last decade as a tragedy of provoking backlash without managing to achieve significant policy goals. But I think to fully unpack this tragedy we need to more clearly center another group of activists: the conservative movement, and especially its most nativist and racist wings. So my first question is, how should we think about the temporal tactics of these groups? Figures of the Future touches on right wing activists and their rhetorics at various points, but does not engage in a full comparison. What might we learn by so doing? Other social movement studies have showcased the importance of movement-counter movement dynamics (for example, Tina Fetner’s “How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism”). To what extent did these actors forecast, foreshadow, and forewarn? Is this a story of equivalent competing deployments of temporal tactics? Or did the conservative movement rely on other rhetorics? No book can cover everything, but I wonder how centering the agency of the countermovement might change the narrative, and help make sense of the choices, successes, and failures of Latino civil rights groups. I worry that without this analysis, it might be too easy to dismiss temporal tactics as ineffective or failures, rather than examining the dynamic interplay between two groups of actors’ as they fight for and with the future.

My second and final question points to the technopolitics of numbers themselves. Figures of the Future focuses heavily on the circulation and interpretation of numbers, but, with the important exception of the discussion of census promotion, deals very little with the technical models, norms, and choices that underpin Census numbers, especially projections. I would be curious to hear more about this choice. The book clearly shows its lineage in the census studies and quantification tradition, and yet it seems to shy away from a deeper analysis of the imbrication of the technical and the political. How did the 2050 Census projections come to be? What choices did they make? To what extent did activists and academics debate those technical decisions, with an eye to the eventual deployment of those projections in various temporal tactics?

Thank you very much again for the opportunity to read and comment on this fantastic book. It was a pleasure to read and to think with, and I look forward to the rest of today’s conversation.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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