Jeb Bush: Latinos’ Candidate?

Jeb Bush finally announced his candidacy for President of the United States as a Republican. According to a reporter, Jeb portrays himself as

[A]n executive animated by big ideas and uniquely capable of carrying them out, pointing to his record in Florida of introducing a taxpayer-financed school voucher program, expanding charter schools, reducing the size of the state government by thousands of workers and cutting taxes by billions.

He also portrays himself as near-Latino.

One of Bush’s campaign major strategies is the pursuit of the Latino vote. It centers on Bush’s claim to Latinos that “I’m close to you, I understand you”: I speak your language, I embrace your culture and I know firsthand the immigrants’ experience. He says nothing about issues of importance to Latinos.

Bush’s repeatedly emphasizes his fluency in Spanish. He also asserts that Spanish is important in his family: He and his wife speak Spanish at home and their children are bilingual. OK Bush, it’s nice that Spanish is important to your family, but how does that help Latinos? Does that mean that you’ll champion immigration justice or accessible health care for poor Latinos? If not, which is certainly the case, your Spanish is just for show.

Bush also proclaims a deep attachment to Mexico:

Here in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has become a day where we celebrate our ties with Mexico and the great contributions of the Mexican-American community in the U.S. In my case, this relationship is very profound. My wife Columba was born in Mexico, my family has always had strong ties with Mexico and I have great respect and affection for our neighboring country.

What Mexico are you talking about, Jeb? The Mexico of Mexican elites? I doubt that you are speaking of the large number of people that would need your help the most: the undocumented poor who experience exploitation in their jobs and racial profiling on the streets.

His last affirmation is completely absurd:

I know the power of the immigrant experience because I live it each and every day. I know the immigrant experience because I married a beautiful girl from Mexico.

Come on, Jeb: Are you serious? What immigrant experience are you talking about? Your wife married a wealthy white aristocrat whose family includes two former Presidents of the United States. Your wife’s experiences have nothing in common with the mass of Latin American immigrants. She has almost certainly not been racially profiled in public spaces or spent years in this country without papers afraid that after years of hard work she could be apprehended and deported.

Jeb touts portions of his biography that are vacuous and not substitutes for a clear statement about how he would address as President the needs of the mass of Mexican and other Latino immigrants or the large population of poor US born Latinos. Don’t expect Latinos to vote for you simply because you speak Spanish and your wife is a Mexican immigrant. Offer them concrete solutions to their problems.

Racist, Immoral Dehumanization of Immigrant Children

There are two main challenges in addressing the border issue of increased numbers of undocumented children traveling alone from Central America to the US.
The first is that the dehumanization of Latinos in the US has been so tremendously successful that a basic call for decency and humanity is absent from the conversations surrounding this situation. For example, I recently highlighted the issue in an op-ed to a local newspaper and the comments reveal people hiding their racism behind arguments of “legal” and “illegal.”

An absence of decency and humanity can also be seen in the protesters who turned away buses of children or who are protesting detention centers across the country where children are housed because we’re a “nation of laws” or because the children “carry diseases,” “bring crime,” will grow up to “rape women.” This is all to familiar language that uses the same fear tactics, dehumanization, and racism once used towards African Americans during slavery and Jim Crow and towards the Chinese during the late 1800s—language used to justify atrocious acts of oppression of these groups then and language used to justify monstrous cruelty to these children today. One has to wonder if these protesters would have the same response to refugee children coming from Eastern Europe. Perhaps there would still be a backlash against thousands of Eastern European refugee children arriving alone to the US; however, I doubt it would rise to the shameless levels we’ve seen recently, or that it would use the kinds of language being used–language that has roots in removing people of color outside of our human and national family throughout American history. This underscores how effective the racialization of Latinos in the U.S. currently is.

The second hindrance with addressing this issue is the problem of politicians who either do not care or if they do care are acting first and foremost in their self-interests by being in lock step with xenophobic Americans’ preferences. This response by our nations leaders underscores Schneider and Ingram’s research revealing that politicians make laws that benefit certain groups and burden others. This explains why Congress refuses to act in a bipartisan fashion and pass laws addressing this situation. This explains why traumatized children are being put on planes and sent back as a deterrence to others. This is not just, rational, or wise public policy but this is what our political leaders are engaged in.

Instead, there must be another way. There must be collaboration and civility between the nations involved to come up with short-term and long-term policy solutions. For example, Héctor Perla Jr. recently provided examples of both short term and long term solutions in a recent article. Perla gives the example of granting the children refugee status rather than seeing them as undocumented immigrants in the short term, and in the long term he argues we must address economic policies in Central America that are creating the conditions pushing children and their parents to migrate.

Other short term ideas with the goal of preventing further harm to the children immediately by keeping more children from dying or being injured on the train include finding them earlier in the process of migration. This would require creating a coalition between the US and the countries from where the children depart to check the trains and help the kids at that point. Long term of course must address the roots of the problem. This requires taking into consideration why children are fleeing their countries and finding ways to address these issues as Perla suggests. This too, must be done in collaboration with leaders from Mexico and Central America. Of course, civility, compromise, and collaboration across national leaders seems impossible to accomplish when it doesn’t happen across political leaders in this country who follow the desires of many Americans who cannot see Latinos as human beings, not even the children.

Minority Student Identity Development: Complex Questions

A new monograph, Latinos in Higher Education and Hispanic-serving Institutions by Anne-Marie Nunez and others includes a chapter on the question of Latino student identity development. The monograph indicates that “a well-developed ethnic identity has been linked to higher levels of self-esteem and overall quality of life….” (p. 29). Yet clearly the journey toward identity development for minority students is a continuous and complex one, without a single clear answer, and defined by individual circumstances. Researchers have noted the clear link between physical identifiability and discrimination. When racial/ethnic identity is linked to visible characteristics, it then becomes a question for the individual how to internalize, reconcile, embrace, and even transcend this identity.

The monograph cites Vasti Torres’ bicultural orientation model (BOM) that presents a nuanced understanding of differences in identity formation based upon an original study of 372 Latino students (1999). This model identifies four alternatives or modalities for how Latino students navigate between two cultures: 1) bicultural (comfort with both cultures); 2) Latino/Hispanic (orientation toward culture of family origin; 3) Anglo (strong connection with majority culture; and 4) marginal (discomfort with both cultures. Torres later conducted a longitudinal study of 10 Latino undergraduates and found distinct differences depending upon environment where they grew up, family influence and generational status, and self-perception of status in society.

Students from diverse environments had a stronger sense of ethnicity, and students from areas where Latinos constitute a critical mass did not view themselves as minorities until they arrived on a predominantly white campus. First-generation college students struggled to balance the demands of schooling with parental expectations. Self-perceptions of ethnic identity relate to whether this identity is viewed as a source of privilege or nonprivilege and whether or not negative stereotypes are seen to pertain to the individual.

Beverly Tatum sheds further light on the complex interrelationship of racial/ethnic identity development and physical identifiability in her landmark book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. She describes identify development as circular, rather than linear, like moving up a spiral staircase. In some sense, we are never finished with this process. Tatum draws upon William Cross’ five-stage theory of identity that begins with pre-encounters with the beliefs and values of the dominant white culture; then moves to a stage of encounter when racist acts draw attention to the significance of race and one’s own devalued position; 3)immersion in the multiplicity of one’s identity; 4) internalization of a positive identity that embraces one’s own difference; and 5) internalized commitment to support the concerns of diverse others.

The pain of racist encounters can cause individuals to reenter the cycle and re-examine their own progress. Perceptions of incompetence associated with minority women in academe are a case in point. As documented in a new book, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia edited by four female professors, racist encounters can cause individuals to doubt themselves and begin the dangerous process of self-fulfilling prophecy and internalization of stereotypes. For example,Yolanda Niemann, in her essay entitled “The Making of a Token,”writes of the disparaging remarks made about her during her third year pre-tenure review, including the mischaracterization of her highly rated teaching evaluations as “poor” by an antagonistic reviewing committee and the stigmatization of negative expectations.

What remains clear is that in the formative college years, the role of college professors is critical in helping minority students in the process of identity exploration as they encounter stereotypes, misperceptions, and even devaluing experiences on our college campuses. The ability to provide a framework for understanding can allow minority students to progress on the continuous, circular staircase leading to the internalization of a positive identity.

Ethnicity is a Social Construction Too

Those of us who study racial and ethnic relations in the United States recognize that race is a social construction. What race means, the characteristics and features that we attach to it and the classifications within it (whether Black, White, Asian, and the like), is not static or primordial, but dynamic and changeable. The meaning of race, then, is conditioned on and by an always shifting, societal context. For example, at the turn of the previous century, race was constructed as biological. Distinct racial classifications were understood as reflecting genetic and morphological differences, observable by phenotype. Racial disparities and inequities were explained in biological terms linked to ideas of racial inferiority and superiority.

The notion of race as rooted in biology, with consequent outcomes linked to ascribed deficiencies, or racism, is understood today as an attempt by the dominant (white) group to protect their material interests, like Southern plantation owners who relied on slave labor to maximize their profits during the pre-industrial era. In this way, the social construction of race as “biological” — in the absence of any hard proof or genetic evidence — emerged as a social fact to reproduce racial inequality.

Today we are much less likely to associate racial group membership with genetic endowments.[1] At the same time, the concept and category of race as a distinct social group persists in the contemporary period. An individual’s racial group membership or identity is still conditioned in part, on phenotype. What this means is that racial classification is both self-defined and externally-imposed. How an individual racially identifies and how he or she is racially identified by others, both matter. Moreover, an individual’s own, personal racial identity “choice” is often but not always, consistent with that which is assigned to him or her by the outside world. For example, although Tiger Woods identifies racially as Cablinasian (Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian), most Americans racially identify him as Black only.

Why race as a social construction matters for ethnicity

The dialectical fluidity of race — between self-definition and other-definition, between an individual’s chosen racial identity versus society’s imposed racial identity — facilitates an understanding of race as a social construction. After all, if Tiger Wood’s racial identity does not match that ascribed by the vast majority of American society, then racial identity (although a social fact), is crap beyond the meaning that is attached to it by an individual on the one hand and society on the other. The racial identity mismatch observed in the case of Tiger Woods encourages us to understand race as a less salient, “made up” category of identity, especially when compared against ethnicity, which is self-defined only.

For example, if I was walking down a public street, most Americans would identify me racially as “Latina” but would be less likely to identify me as Mexican-origin. My ethnicity, whether of Mexican, Salvadoran, Puerto Rican, or other Latin American-origin, is indeterminate; they’d have to ask. Additionally, because ethnicity is self-defined, it presumably has meaning for the person identifying with a particular ethnic group. From this perspective, ethnic self-identity matters for individuals and society in a way that racial self-identity doesn’t.

Ironically, this idea is related to a counterintuitive conception of ethnicity that characterizes it as more fluid than race, because one’s ethnicity is always “optional” (Waters 1990). Here the idea is simply that ethnicity is dynamic, fluid and self-defined; as such, anyone can assert any ethnic identity they choose to. And yet, the ethnic identity that they choose, because they choose it, must matter.

The salience of ethnicity when compared to race is also highlighted in the work of some racial and ethnic scholars who refer to race as a “secondary” category of identity, whereas ethnicity is referred to as an “anchoring” or “primary identity” (Itzigsohn and Dore-Cabral 2000; McDermott and Samson 2005). Moreover, the “maintenance” of ethnicity is thought to foster immigrant group cohesion, which may offer some material protection against a negative societal reception context. In contrast, racial identity formation may take place during a process of assimilation, as immigrants and their descendants “lose” their ethnicity, and with it, close-knit ties and sociocultural support. The characterization of ethnicity as a primary, anchoring identity, the maintenance of which offers protection to group members (whereas racial identity does not), underscores the greater importance and salience that American scholars of race relations place on ethnicity.[2]

The perception of ethnicity as a more salient feature of identity is related to its conception as a socially constructed, self-defined identity. Because there is no other option but the option that is chosen by the individual, whether the option makes (common)sense or not, the option selected is accepted without comment. On the other hand, racial identity may be self-defined but is also other-defined. The person who racially identifies one way may or may not be racially identified that way by everyone else.

The problem with this construction of ethnicity is that it tends to reinforce the idea that ethnicity is somehow more “real” (if more fluid) than race. And if ethnicity is more real than race, then for some scholars, it becomes inherent, primordial. This is the slippery slope of ethnic identity formation and why at times, we may forget that ethnicity is as socially constructed as race.

Remember, ethnicity is a social construction too

I started thinking of the relationship between ethnic self-identification and the tendency to interpret ethnicity as more “real” than race when, as part of a new research project, I read a transcribed interview of a self-identified Mexican-origin entrepreneur. This entrepreneur was born in Mexico by immigrant Lebanese parents, she went to boarding school in France, eventually moved back to Mexico for a short time, then moved to the United States where she has been ever since, and where she married a White American man. Her self-defined ethnicity is Mexican, although she speaks Arabic, Spanish and French. Her racial identity is White, and claims that she doesn’t “feel Hispanic,” even though she has applied for and won awards for being a successful “Hispanic” entrepreneur.

In other words, her racial identity is White (she mentions that “No one considers [me] Hispanic”), although she has on occasion identified as Hispanic for instrumental reasons. Either way, the social construction of race is apparent here. Her ethnicity, on the other hand, was confusing to me. Although she self-identifies as Mexican, her parents are Lebanese, she maintains cultural features that are Mexican and Lebanese, she spent a lot of time outside of Mexico when she was growing up, and she racially identifies as non-Hispanic White.

When I finished reading the interview, I wondered about my easy acceptance of her White or Hispanic racial identity, depending, and my confusion and even discomfort about her ethnic self-identity. Why didn’t I readily accept her as ethnically Mexican, when she said she was? At that point I reached out to some colleague-friends and asked them to weigh in on her ethnic identity. Every one of them said she was Mexican; basically, because she said so. Yet, couldn’t we argue that she is also Lebanese? Why didn’t we stop to consider whether she was “more Lebanese” than Mexican, or both? Then again, since ethnicity is socially constructed as self-identified, why shouldn’t she be classified as Mexican if she says so? The point here is that ethnicity as a category of identity is arguably as messy as the category of race is, and yet, we often take ethnic identity at face value. Regarding this entrepreneur, my colleagues were willing to accept her as Mexican because she said so. This belies a salience not to ethnicity, per se, but rather, to the salience of self-identification.

The acceptance of self-identification as real deserves explicit acknowledgement, because it is the reason why we accept ethnic self-identity choices or options without question. Ethnicity could be just as messy as racial identity, if we constructed it as such. But we didn’t, so it isn’t. In fact, we don’t really care about racial self-identity at all, because whether it converges with society’s externally-imposed identity or not doesn’t really matter. A racial mismatch between an individual’s self-identity and society’s is acceptable, while an ethnic mismatch is not. In the end, the only ethnic identity that matters is the one the individual ascribes to. And yet, this doesn’t mean it is more important or anchoring or inherent than racial identity, just that it is socially constructed as self-identified, so it is perceived as such.

[1] Although this conception also continues to persist. For example, the neoconservative argument that affirmative action is “reverse racism” highlights the undeserved, merit-less, advantages of “less-qualified” racial minorities who benefit from “unfair government” “set-asides” in education and the labor market. More recently, however, observed racial inequality is commonly explained using a “color blind” framework, which is an attempt to explain racial inequality through non-racial means. In other words, to blame “anything but racism” for persistent racial inequality (see Bonilla Silva 2009).

[2] With the exception of critical race scholars, who, in contrast to traditional or mainstream approaches (i.e., the research on assimilation or immigrant incorporation), tend to emphasize race as a systemic or structural force (see the works of Feagin 2006, Moore 2007, and Bonilla-Silva 1997).

Zulema Valdez is associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University. She is author of the book, The New Entrepreneurs: Race, Class, and Gender in American Enterprise.