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Esther Cepeda: Latinos aren’t just a bundle of statistics

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Esther J. Cepeda
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

CHICAGO -- According to a recent study by professors from the University of Southern California and American University, discrimination against Hispanics is less about hostility against an ethnic “outgroup” and more about the stereotypes that imply they are a burden on the country.

In a Washington Post Monkey Cage blog post, authors Morris Levy and Matthew Wright note that when white people are missing consistent information about Hispanics, they simply assume they are not legally present in the country. And whites then “rely on ethnic cues to ‘fill in the blanks’—assuming undocumented Latinos are uneducated, unassimilated and potential financial problems for U.S. society.”

However, Levy and Wright found that whites are actually open to policies that address negative group stereotypes about Hispanics, concluding, “If the media were to cover Latinos in other contexts—not just in relation to immigration—the public might think less about immigration in ethnic categories, and therefore [be] less likely to succumb to demagogues’ ethnic scapegoating.”

Hispanics have been saying this for years to no avail, but having two white experts say it reinforces and legitimizes it. Too bad “the media” won’t listen to them any more than they have listened to the many scholars, experts and advocates—both Hispanic and not—who’ve been saying much the same thing for decades.

Here’s a snippet for you from Linda Chavez, the author, commentator and former White House appointee under Ronald Reagan, in her 1991 book, “Out of the Barrio”:

“Contrary to popular opinion, most Mexican-American young adults have completed high school, being nearly as likely to do so as other Americans. But the popular press, the federal government and Hispanic organizations cite statistics that indicate otherwise. … This confusion stems, as it does with earnings data, from lumping native-born Hispanics with immigrants to get statistical averages for the entire group.”

After a quarter-century, this still rings true. No matter how many times the diversity of the Hispanic populace is articulated by demographers, academics and Hispanics themselves, it’s just easier for everyone involved to refer to the aggregated, easy-to-manage (and fictional) “Latino community” for the purposes of reporting.

According to Levy and Wright, if activists want to build public support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for those unlawfully present in the United States, they “must still deal with the fact that illegal immigration and Latino ethnicity are closely linked in Americans’ minds.”

Unfortunately, for at least the last decade, this has been by design.

Back when the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 passed in the House of Representatives—which called for a border wall and required the federal government to take custody of unlawfully present immigrants detained by local authorities—immigrant advocates made a priority of linking the fastest-growing demographic to millions of unauthorized immigrants.

Ever since the run-up to the nationwide immigration protests of 2006, one plank of immigrant-advocacy strategy has been to “humanize” immigrants by emphasizing that they are not just statistics—one of 11 million—but the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands and wives of U.S. citizens.

And it’s not hyperbole. A recent America’s Voice/Latino Decisions poll of registered Latino voters found that 35 percent of respondents know someone who has been detained for immigration reasons or deported, and 57 percent know a friend, family member or co-worker who is residing in the U.S. illegally.

Taken another way, however, 65 percent of registered Hispanics don’t know someone in that situation and more than one-third don’t know anyone in the U.S. illegally. This, again, underscores the diversity of a population that doesn’t share a common nationality, doesn’t always speak the same language and has been present in the U.S. since before it gained independence from Great Britain.

Untangling all this is nearly impossible for modern news outlets that prize ease-of-understanding and brevity in reporting on anything—luckily it’s not even necessary. For instance, it would probably go a long way if the media simply refrained from making every immigration story about people from Latin America.

Levy and Wright put it succinctly: A responsible media can help prevent bigotry against Latinos by covering Hispanics in other contexts. In other words, Latinos aren’t just a bundle of statistics. They are your doctors, lawyers, journalists, accountants, sports heroes, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, rocket scientists and politicians.



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