Puerto Ricans: Mythologizing Reality and US Hegemony

Puerto Ricans are lazy, filthy, thieves, parasites. They expect everything to be handed to them. They are dumb people who have no initiative or talent. They lack discipline and a sense of responsibility. They love to party. They hate their compatriots: [they say that] the island is sinking, losing its population and coming apart.(Translated from Spanish.)

Who in the world would utter such diatribes against Puerto Ricans: White supremacists? The Ku Klux Klan? Not really.

According to Benjamín Torres Gotay, a Puerto Rican journalist writing in San Juan’s Spanish language El Nuevo Día, it’s Puerto Rican themselves. Torres asserts that these beliefs represent a campaign carried out by people who are convinced that the solution to Puerto Rico’s problems is statehood. Because Puerto Ricans are by nature incapable of taking care of themselves, it is claimed, the US would step in and solve the problems of its 51st state.

Puerto Rico’s problems, Torres asserts, are rooted in a system that grew out of Puerto Rico’s dependence on the US. “Laziness” is due to the lack of decent jobs, “ignorance” grows out of a disastrous school system, and “lacking in initiative” is the result of a deeply embedded popular notion that Puerto Ricans need US help to take care of things.

We may add that the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci pointed out that after long inculcation such myths penetrate the average individuals’ psyche and become an unquestioned “commonsense.” Gramsci denominated this state of affairs “hegemony.” All colonies suffer from this “hegemony.”

To Torres’ penetrating accounting of the root causes of Puerto Rico’s maladies we need to add racism. Anti-Latino racism is part and parcel of US culture. In the halls of Congress, no less, Latinos have been called inferior mixtures of Spanish, Indian and Black stock, or “mongrels.” The US is not sympathetic to people of “other” races (that is those who are not white) and consequently unlikely to hold a benevolent view of Puerto Rico.

The racist message has become a component of Puerto Rican commonsense. It teaches that as an “other race,” Puerto Ricans have no one to blame but themselves for their problems. This is an ironic twist: exploit a people and blame their race for the consequences of their exploitation.

Signs of Racism: “Save Our Country Close Our Borders”

Recent Central American migration has generated numerous protests across the U.S. Yet this backlash differs because the primary targets of white anti-immigrant sentiment are Guatemalan, Salvadorian, and Honduran children. This humanitarian crisis and the subsequent relocation of undocumented families to various border patrol stations and detention centers has led to significant increases in anti-immigrant and anti-Latina/o rallies and demonstrations. The protest signs reveal a hodgepodge of political, economic, patriotic, and emotional reactions as evidenced in the following pictures below.

SaveOurBorders

(Image source)

Although the protestors vary in the messages they seek to convey, here I focus on four themes (1) health (2) taxes (3) illegal/legal status and (4) children. Moreover, the protest signs are often accompanied with crude attempts at humor as a way to further denigrate Latinas/os. An informal examination of the white protester’s signs and banners reveals a common connection, the racialization of Latinas/os and the reinforcement of white supremacy. All the pictures except for one were collected through various online news articles using the search terms “immigrant protest.”

BoycottMexico UR_Tax
Dumping NoAmnesty

(Image sources, clockwise from top left:
Times of San Diego, Syracuse.com, MagicValley Times-News, and Syracuse.com).

 

Health: Mainstream U.S. society has treated undocumented and documented Latina/o immigrants as foreign piranha eager to devour jobs and overrun communities. Over time immigrants have been wrongly portrayed as plights on the system draining public services, specifically the health care system.

Rising hospital costs, overcrowded emergency rooms, and increased diseases, have been some of the common historical and contemporary ailments undeservingly blamed on Latina/o immigrants. Yet, the overwhelmingly white protestors continue to attack Latinas/os by operating out of the white racial frame.

Within this worldview an anti-Latina/o health perspective emerges. For instance, the following white oppressive sign “Save our children from diseases” (image below) refers to the stereotype that Latina/o immigrant children are unhealthy, unclean, sickly, and dirty. The presence of immigrant children threatens the health status of white American children (read the future of whites), therefore, as the argument goes Central American immigrants need to be removed or eliminated in order to preserve the health status of white children.

FreePass

(Image source)

Another sign reads, “Stop Diseases Crossing Our Border” and the message is clear. Central American children are viewed as a danger to white health and therefore should be removed before they infect white children. This health hysteria harkens back to public health campaigns steeped in xenophobia (see, Shah Contagious Divides). The fact that it continues today, speaks to the continuing power of white xenophobia and white racism.

The final health related protest sign “Thousands of American veterans die waiting for medical care, free medical care for illegals” (see below) underscores a blatant attempt to utilize health as a weapon of fear. The white protestors falsely attribute the death of American veterans to the medical expenses and increased waiting periods generated by Latinas/os. Invoking veterans is an attempt to utilize patriotism as a mechanism to solicit outrage and thus support, yet none of these claims are substantiated with actual data.

MedicalCare

(Image source)

Taxes: Historically, immigrants have been falsely represented as disease carriers in order to justify exclusion and control. But, exclusion from what? Well according to protestors, from economic and social support. This uninformed and inherently racist perspective interlocks both health and taxes to delegitimize the prospect of citizenship “Our tax $ for u!!! Hell no, go home”. Despite the fact that undocumented immigrants pay more into the system than they receive. Another protestor perpetuates the myth that immigrants drain public services by reframing the issue around illegality and criminality “UR TAX $ 4 Illegals” (see image above).

The protestors’ misconceived argument regarding taxes and Latino/a immigrants goes something like this:  “As an American, I believe that the immigrant children should go back to their country immediately. I do not want to spend my money nor the government’s resources on immigrant children because they are illegal.” These misinformed views and statements fail to contextualize the complexity of the situation. These particular slogans do not capture the forces that have shaped present day Central America, particularly the role of the US in perpetuating war in such places as Guatemala and the subsequent legacies of poverty and violence; and thus migration.

Legal/Illegal: The law is used to mask the dehumanization of Latina/o immigrants while also failing to consider the dire circumstances which led to the children’s precarious situation. For example, “U.S. citiens don’t get free pass y should ileagels” (see image below) and “We Immigrated Legally! Please do the same”. Despite the spelling and grammar, these arguments do not consider the historically racist immigration policies the U.S. has placed on people of color. Immigration policies have worked to exclude and control non-whites rather than incorporate them into U.S. society. Furthermore, similar to “American” the synonym “We” stands for whites. We followed the law, we are good law-abiding citizens, whereas these children are criminals “illegals” this rhetoric creates a familiar “us versus them” scenario.

 

Legally

(Image source)

Children: The protestors also use comedy as a way to belittle and degrade the immigrant children, for example, “No vacancy try the white house” and “The White House Called: Obama & Michele are waiting for you there… They love children!”  “Return to sender” and “Agents: Secure Our Border Not Change Diapers”. However, underlining the sarcasm is another hateful and racist attempt to demean Central American children. The first two protest signs unrealistically suggest that the white house and by extension the Obamas can be an alternative housing option for the children. The white house acts as a symbolic site for failed immigration policy and the misplaced fear that the protestors’ own homes will be occupied by menacing foreigners, as expressed by this sign “Breaking into MY House Doesn’t Give you the Right to Stay NO Amnesty!”. The racist protestors blame Obama and the white house as the source of the perceived immigration problem. In addition, the protestor’s white privilege affords them the ability to feel mistreated, yet propose unrealistic solutions.

The protestors shamelessly deflect the problem by calling for the children to be sent to Washington, DC “Tired of the lies! Bus the kids to the White House!”. The white protestors rehash the hurtful images and experiences of desegregated school busing. Busing children of color has been a consistent theme in the struggle for racial equality and a reality all too familiar for Blacks and other People of Color. It is in this vein that the irrationality of the protestors comes to light; Obama can deal with the children first hand and then perhaps deportation efforts will be expedited. But it is hard to believe that the kids themselves are the central issue, especially when the protestors expel messages of impeachment and securing the border, as in this sign, this one and this one.

The concern over the moving of displaced immigrant children into their communities caused intense panic among many of the protestors, “What about our kids?! Keep our kids safe”.The call for self-preservation is based on an anti-immigrant ideology that demonizes Latinas/os. The white racial framing of Latina/o immigrants is particularly troubling in this case because the children are thrust into circumstances that are beyond their control.

BusKids

(Image source)

The white anti-immigration protestors rely on the stereotypical about disease carriers, arguments loosely based on legality, and the familiar, convoluted tax angle. The protestors use banners, signs, exclamation points, puns, innuendos, sarcasm, and humor to hammer their point and enhance their hate speech. White privilege, self-preservation, and fear, fuel anti-immigrant supporters in their effort to degrade children who have desperately fled from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The protest pictures are also shrouded in nationalistic fervor; almost every picture has a US flag or clothing, likening securing the border to patriotic duty. The systemic nature of white supremacy works to exclude and deport Latinas/os while simultaneously reproducing inequalities and sustaining racial oppression; as a result, whites are able to rationalize the sentiment “Save Our Country Close Our Borders.”

Meanwhile, the families of undocumented Central Americans wait in facilities that resemble prisons, while elected officials refuse to make any progress towards the dignity of innocent children.

ImmigrationAmerican

(Image source)

Perhaps the anti-immigration protestors can learn a different message.

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.

Patterns and Politics of Large-Scale Poverty

Over the last half-century, since the passage of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, there has been a major retrenchment of efforts to help the poor. Over the last five decades, the poverty rate of the elderly dropped significantly from 37 percent in 1960 to 9 percent in 2012. Poverty dropped much more modestly for children and the workforce.

In that era, jobs were at the center of efforts to alleviate poverty. Dr. King’s monumental march on Washington on August 28, 1963, was actually called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Economic Opportunity Act, the centerpiece of the war against poverty, sought to provide work and education for the needy to improve their lives.

Fifty years later, major educational gaps continue to distinguish the poor and non-poor members of the labor force. For example, one-fourth of the poor did not have a high school diploma in 2012 compared to nearly one-tenth of the non-poor. Further, the non-poor are three times more likely to be college graduates than the poor.

According to census public-use data for 1960 and 2012, the poverty rate of the U.S. workforce fell only slightly, from 14 percent in 1960 to 10 percent in 2012 — a mere 4 percentage points over 52 years. While the poverty gap between the minority and white workforce narrowed over the last five decades, black and Latino workers are still about 2.5 times more likely than whites to be impoverished today.

In fact, the poverty rate of the black labor force (17.2 percent) and the Latino labor force (16 percent) in 2012 was higher than that of whites (10.6 percent) in 1960.

Even more disturbing is the ballooning of the unemployment gap between the U.S. poor and non-poor workforce. While the poor were about 2.5 times more likely than the non-poor to be without a job in 1960, the unemployment gap increased to more than 4.5 times today. In 2012, 32 percent of the nation’s poor labor force was unemployed compared to 7 percent of the non-poor workforce. It is likely that the unemployment rate is actually higher, especially among the destitute, due to people leaving the labor force after lengthy periods of unsuccessful job searches.

The unemployment gap between the poor and non-poor was particularly wide among whites, where the white poor (30 percent) were five times as likely to be without a job compared to the white non-poor (6 percent) in 2012. Nonetheless, many impoverished people in the country are searching for employment. Indeed, the unemployment rate of the poor varied widely in 2012 from 43 percent among blacks to 30 percent among whites to 26 percent among Latinos.

However, among the poor, it is Latino immigrants who have the lowest unemployment rate (20 percent). This challenges notions that Latino immigrants come to the United States to live off the largesse of social services. In fact, Latino immigrants are more likely to be employed than other workers. In addition, Latino immigrants among the working poor are more likely than other impoverished employees to work longer hours and to hold jobs that are the least rewarded and desired.

Of course, a job does not ensure that the poor get out of poverty. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of the poor who are in the labor force are working. While the portion of U.S. workers who are poor declined from 1960 to 2000, there has been a reversal since. In 2012, about one of every 14 U.S. workers was in poverty. But being among the working poor is especially likely among workers of color. About one of nine black workers is poor, one in 10 native-born Latinos, and one in six Latino immigrants.

A lot has changed since the eve of the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964. The economy then was one in which manufacturing provided a good living for many Americans who had a high school diploma or less. Over the next few decades, such jobs shifted to the hands of workers abroad who toiled for a mere pittance of the pay of American workers. U.S. labor unions saw a major drop in membership and in bargaining power. The American economy increasingly took the shape of an hourglass where job growth expanded at the highest and lowest levels of the job hierarchy. The middle class progressively shrank.

The latest economic crisis has taken a toll on so many people, many of whom had never been poor before. Many people who are working today are still destitute and still others among the poor are desperately looking for employment. Increasingly, our society consists of a small elite body that controls an expanding share of wealth and income and a growing population of disadvantaged people whose sliver of resources is being whittled down.

In the mid-1960s, President Johnson passionately etched the face of the poor on the American consciousness and forcefully pushed for the establishment of policies to improve the lives of people on the margins. A half-century later, there is a stark absence of political leaders who see the poor as a priority.

Today, Republican-led policies, with relatively little resistance from Democrats, are escalating the war against the poor. Instead of creating opportunities to better the lives of the needy, legislators blame the poor for their dire straits. Congress has slashed food stamp allocations, terminated unemployment payments and thwarted the increase of the minimum wage for people viewed as too powerless to matter.

Over the last half-century, there has not been a more desperate time than today for visionary leaders who boldly push for the establishment of opportunities to improve the lot of our nation’s poor.

This commentary was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News.

The Fisher decision misses the point: Separate and unequal

A new Georgetown University report titled “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Privilege” by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl reinforces why the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas misses the point. Recall that in Fisher v. the University of Texas, while the justices recognized the value of diversity in the higher education experience, universities and colleges must prove that no workable race-neutral alternatives could have produced the same diversity benefit. And strikingly, Justice Kennedy stated that in this process “the university receives no deference.” A reviewing court will be the arbiter of this determination.

The report by Carnevale and Strohl debunks the assumption that the United States has attained a level educational playing field in which consideration of race is no longer relevant. The study demonstrates that American higher education has two separate and unequal tracks: the 468 selective colleges and the 3250 open-access institutions. The divergence between these two tracks is increasing rather than diminishing. The authors identify two prominent themes that characterize these tracks: 1) racial stratification in the 4400 two- and four- year colleges analyzed for the study; and 2) polarization between the most selective schools and open-access schools. And from a student perspective, they conclude that “disadvantage is worst of all when race and class collide.”

Between 1995 and 2009, despite increases in the enrollment of African American and Hispanic students attending postsecondary institutions, more than 8 in 10 of new white students enrolled in the 468 most selective institutions, whereas more than 7 in 10 new Hispanic and African-American students have gone to open-access two and four-year colleges. White students account for 78 percent of the growth in the more selective institutions, while 92 percent of the growth in open-access institutions went to Hispanic and African-American students.

In addition, stratification by income is marked in more selective colleges, with high-income students overrepresented relative to population share by 45 percentage points and African-American and Hispanic students underrepresented relative to population share by 9 percentage points. This disadvantage is magnified by pre-existing geographic (spatial) isolation in the location of high schools as well as economic and educational deprivation in the pre-college years.

Why does this matter? The 468 most selective schools spend two to nearly five times more per student, have higher ratios of full- to part-time faculty, higher completion rates, and greater access to graduate schools, even when considering equally qualified students. Also, the college completion rate for the most selective schools is 82 percent, compared with 49 percent for open-access, two- and four-year institutions.

The report responds to two important questions. First, it provides substantive evidence that contradicts the “mismatch” theory which posits that minority students fare better in universities where the median test scores are nearer their own. In contrast, it reveals that Hispanic and African-American students benefit from attending selective institutions even when their test scores fall substantially below the averages at these schools, with a graduation rate of 73 percent from top colleges when compared to a graduation rate of 40 percent at open-access institutions.

Second, the report sheds light on the difficulty of substituting race-neutral alternatives such as class or to produce the same educational diversity benefit. The authors find that it would take more than five or six times the current level of class-based admissions to maintain the current racial mix in the most selective colleges. In fact, the pool of low-income white students far exceeds the pool of Hispanic and African-American students eligible for selective college admissions. The flood of low-income students that could result from using class as a proxy for disadvantage would create intense resource challenges for all but the most wealthy of selective institutions in the financial aid process. More selective institutions would also have difficulty to maintain current standards in the competition for students with higher test scores.

The report does not include an identical analysis for Asians and Native Americans due to data limitations. It does note that while 50 percent of new Asian enrollments have gone to the most selective schools, 30 percent have also gone to the open-access schools. In this regard, a 2005 College Board study reveals that Asian American/Pacific Islander students are evenly concentrated in two- and four-year institutions, with over half of the students in California and Nevada enrolled in community colleges. And a study produced by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute concludes that, like other minority students, AAPI students often struggle with poverty, with 47.4 of Asian American families classified as low income compared with 39.5 percent of the general population.

The challenge ahead for universities is to develop the statistical models that will satisfy the Supreme Court’s requirement to prove that alternative race-neutral alternatives are not sufficient for producing the educational benefits of diversity. In the evolution of the new criteria required to satisfy Fisher’s requirements, the Georgetown University report takes an important step in laying the groundwork for the evidentiary data and metrics needed.

Summing up the complexity of the court’s newly imposed requirements for justifying the consideration of race as one factor among others in college admissions, Thomas Kane and James Ryan point out in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that:

The court sometimes seems to labor under the belief that there is some magical combination of race-neutral proxies that will produce exactly the same group of students as in a class admitted under a race-conscious plan. Admissions officers know differently….

Race, Space, and History: Power Relations in Government Policy

The intersection of race, space, and history in local government policies and politics illustrates the profound impact of spatial arrangements on the reproduction of systemic inequalities. As Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin point out in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Front Stage and the Backstage (2007) significant research supports the argument that much of the social space in the United States is highly racialized.

Two articles provide significant insight into how such racialization occurs within the context of the efforts of cities in California to reconfigure historical neigborhoods and nullify and erase the presence of dominant ethnic identities from the landscape. Wendy Cheng’s perceptive article entitled “’Diversity’ on Main Street? Branding Race and Place in the New ‘Majority-Minority’ Suburbs” (2010), describes two redevelopment campaigns in the Los Angeles West San Gabriel Valley cities of Alhambra and San Gabriel that epitomized the struggle for white economic, social and political dominance over Asian American and Latino pasts.

In an area in which Asian immigrants and Asian Americans constitute half the population and Latinos represent more than a third of the population, the polarization of the city of Alhambra is reflected in residential patterns, with the largely white northern area reporting a median household income 50 percent higher in 2000 than the southern area comprised of a heterogeneous mix of working-class to middle-income Mexican-Americans and Asian Americans.

Cheng documents how the redevelopment of Alhambra’s Main Street involved high-pressure tactics by the city to excise small Chinese businesses and replace them with new “mainstream” businesses. For example, the city gave Starbucks a “tenant improvement allowance” using $136,000 of HUD money and bought an 8,000 square-foot building for over $1 million with an additional $350,000 in upgrades to lure Tony Roma’s to open a restaurant on Main Street, after the chain restaurant had refused several overtures. And the redevelopment agency literally gave Edwards Theatres a 43,000-square-foot parcel of land and $1.2 million form a HUD loan to construct a movie theater. To cap these efforts, the merchants in the Downtown Alhambra Business Association invested in a diversity branding effort with banners that included an older blond white woman, a young Latina woman with freckles and dark hair, a middle-aged Asian man, and a young blue-eyed, blond white woman.

Similarly, in his article entitled, “From ‘Blighted’ to ‘Historic’: Race, Economic Development, and Historic Preservation in San Diego, California” (2008), Leland T. Saito chronicles how the determination of historic designation in the city “favored Whites and overlooked the history of racial minorities” (p. 183). The city commissioned studies on the Chinese Mission, Douglas Hotel, and Clermont/Coast Hotels, three properties associated with Asian American and African American history, and concluded they were not historically or architecturally significant. The Chinese Mission, established in 1927, was a major social center for the Chinese American Community. The Douglas Hotel was the most important entertainment venue for African Americans when it was established in 1924 and the only hotel that would accept African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. The Clermont/Coast Hotel also had significance for the history of the African American Community.

It was only through the lobbying efforts of the Chinese American community and the African American community that the Chinese Mission and Clermont/Coast Hotel were preserved and received historic designation. Due to the lack of a major lobbying effort, the Douglas Hotel was demolished. Saito concludes from these examples that

“public policy is an important site of struggle over the meaning of race” (p. 168) and that “race remains significant in the formation and implementation of development and historic preservation policies” (p. 182).

Community groups, however, can play a key role in counteracting the racial consequences of public policy.

Both these articles present evidence of how space is intertwined with race and history in the identity of place and underscore the importance of community activism and minority participation on city councils. Such activism and solidarity are critical in overcoming divided racial, economic, and geographic interests, ensuring the voice and representation of minority populations, and changing the dynamics of power relationships within municipal governments.

Critiques of Richwine: Not Attacks on Academic Freedom


Jason Richwine’s dissertation
has provoked a firestorm in the media. Many people find it shocking that Harvard professors would approve a dissertation that argues that Hispanics have lower innate intelligence than native-born whites.

More than 1200 Harvard students demanded an investigation into the “racist claims” made in Richwine’s dissertation and have called for a public response from Harvard’s Kennedy School. Additionally, over 1200 scholars have signed a statement in opposition to scientific racism – the use of science to argue that a racialized group is inferior.

Richwine denies the charges of racism and claims he never argued that any group is inferior to another. In his dissertation, Richwine contended that Hispanics have lower innate IQs than native-born whites, and that this disparity is likely to persist across generations. This claim fits a widely-accepted definition of racism – understood as an ideology that certain racialized groups are inherently inferior to others, and that they will pass down these traits to their children.

The question for academics, however, is whether or not the public outcry with regard to the Richwine dissertation is an assault on academic freedom, as Jeff Jacoby claimed at the Boston Globe on Wednesday. I believe the critiques of Richwine do not constitute an attack on academic freedom and I will explain why I think that Harvard professors should not have guided and approved Richwine’s dissertation.

Before I begin, I will clarify that it is within my right to critique a dissertation and to critique my colleagues at Harvard. How could it not be? I critique and evaluate scholarship every day as part of my job as an academic. Now, let’s look at the dissertation.

Richwine provides data that shows that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQ scores than native-born whites. This data is fairly uncontroversial and not novel. If a student came to me and asked me to work with them on a dissertation that examines why Hispanic immigrants have lower IQ scores than native-born whites, I would likely agree to work with them. The question of why Hispanics’ IQ scores are lower than white Americans is a valid academic question and worthy of academic debate.

There are many reasons for these disparities, and there are many statistical manipulations you could do to figure out why Hispanic immigrants have low IQ scores. Richwine, however, was not interested in why they have low IQs. This is a central problem with his work – he does not conduct empirical analyses on why the disparities exist. IQ scores are designed to have an average score of 100. By definition, some people have to do better than others. The finding that some people do better than others is not at all interesting in an academic debate. What is interesting is why people or certain groups of people do better or worse. The reasons for the disparities are extremely varied and have to do with how the tests are designed, what the tests measure, and a host of environmental and educational factors.

Instead of looking into why some people do better than others on IQ tests, Richwine uses other studies to argue that there is most likely a genetic component to their low IQ scores. Richwine reviews some of the literature surrounding intelligence testing, and concludes that substantial indirect evidence exists that IQ differentials are genetic. Thus, although his argument does not hinge on IQ differences being genetic, it does hinge on the disparities being persistent. Attributing these differences to genetics helps his arguments.

In his dissertation, Richwine also fails to contend to any extent with what it means to be Hispanic. He simply takes it at face value that Hispanics are those people who claim to be Hispanic. This way of defining Hispanic would be acceptable. However, when you make the claim that the IQ disparities between whites and Hispanics are due to genetics, then, you have to define what Hispanic means. Otherwise, you leave wide open the question of how one could make the claim that Hispanics have anything in common genetically with one another. For me, this continues to be an enormous unanswered question. How could anyone possibly think that Hispanics share a genetic makeup?

Richwine then provides data that shows that Latin American countries are “low IQ countries” – so it is not the case that only low IQ people emigrate, but that Latin America is filled with low IQ people (68). Richwine claims that it may be the case that Latin Americans have low IQ scores because of material deprivation, but that could not be the only answer, as their IQ scores do not improve once they come to the United States, which is a richer country. This section is problematic because the relative material deprivation of Hispanics compared to non-Hispanic whites is not something we can ignore. To cite one piece of evidence for this, 35% of Hispanic children live in poverty, as compared to 12% of white children. There is no doubt that these disparities contribute to IQ score differentials.

Richwine provides data that shows that European immigrants’ scores have improved over time, but that those of Hispanic immigrants have not. Because Hispanics’ IQs have not improved over time in the past, he contends they will not improve in the future. Of course, if the material environment does not improve for Hispanics (which, by many measures, it has not), we would not expect for IQ scores to improve.

He concludes by arguing that IQ scores should be a factor in immigration policy. He makes this argument without recognizing the racialized history of both US immigration policy and intelligence testing. US immigration policy has a long history of being overtly racist – one of the first immigration laws ever passed was the Chinese Exclusion Act. The 1924 Immigration Act was designed specifically to reduce immigration from Eastern Europe and to all but eliminate immigration from Africa and Asia. Ignoring this history in a policy dissertation is problematic. The suggestion that we incorporate IQ scores into immigration policy is not innocuous because it reeks of eugenics – of the United States attempting to build a county with the most intellectually fit people from around the world.

When Richwine first approached professors at Harvard about his topic, he would have had to discuss what he was measuring, what literature he planned to use, and how he would formulate his policy-based arguments. I continue to find it hard to believe that his dissertation chair would have approved a study that simply shows IQ disparities without doing any data analysis into why those disparities exist. I also believe that his chair should have told him that he needed to contend with the racist history of US immigration policy. Finally, his advisors should have told him a dissertation could not rely on discredited publications by Charles Murray and J. Philippe Rushton – both of whom have spent much of their careers trying to prove the intellectual inferiority of blacks and Latinos.

In sum, I continue to find it appalling that three Harvard professors guided and approved a dissertation that attributed IQ to genetic differences without seriously engaging the accompanying issues and that made policy recommendations that sound similar to eugenics policies without any acknowledgement of the similarities. Pointing this out is not an attack on academic freedom. It is an exercise of academic freedom.

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.

IQ and the Nativist Movement: Richwine’s Report

The academic and policy worlds have been roiled by last week’s announcement that a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform was co-authored by Jason Richwine, who wrote a dissertation on the purported low IQ of immigrants. It beyond belief that, in the year 2013, there are still some that want to posit that there is a genetic basis for race. Even more surprisingly, these arguments come endorsed with a seal of approval by some of the nation’s top universities, like Harvard in this case. As an alumnus of the Kennedy School and a scholar of race and Hispanic identity, I feel obliged to provide a response.

Having spent last week with some of the world’s premier scholars of race at a workshop on “Reconsidering Race” at Texas A&M University, in which we examined the interface of social science and genetics/genomics and health, I am stunned by the lack of rigor and intellectual depth evinced by Richwine’s dissertation. The work makes extremely simplistic assumptions about “race,” immigration, and the link between IQ and genetics. Even a neophyte in matters of genetics/genomics can see the gaping holes in Richwine’s logic. One would have expected his advisors, Professors George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks to have been more cognizant of the complex nature of terms such as “race”, “Hispanic,” and “white,” as well as their tenuous links to genetics (assuming they actually read the dissertation). Richwine claimed in his Harvard dissertation that “the material environment and genes probably make the greatest contributions to IQ differences” (p. 4) and that “today’s immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives” (p. 134).

There are three basic points that have to be made to remind these scholars that such shoddy work should not easily pass at the doctoral level– or any level for that matter. One is the basic idea that “Hispanics” can be of any race (a concept that Richwine references in passing in his dissertation), so that it is not possible to simply oppose “Hispanic” and “white” as if they were mutually exclusive categories (a dichotomy that is crucial to his argument). In fact, Pope Francis is Hispanic; so is Rigoberta Menchu. The term is a politically- and socially-constructed category that has been shaped through historical ties between the US, Latin America, and the Iberian peninsula. There is nothing inherent, natural, or ‘genetic’ in the category of “Hispanic.” There are many people of European ancestry in Latin America, but there are also many of Amerindian origins, African descent, and a vast majority whose origins are a mix of ethnicities, including East Asian, Jewish, Arab, and practically every other group in the world (I myself, for example, am of Aymara, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese origin).

The primitive binary taxonomy of “black vs. white” (emanating from the US one-drop rule) that has somehow become transformed into a spurious “white vs. non-white” Manichean logic is untenable. Not only has racial admixture always been the case (since, as work by Nell Irvin Painter reminds us, there were many ‘white races’ — not just one– at previous historical times), but ‘racial’ mixing has become even more prevalent even in the US in the last five decades as a result of the rapid rise of non-European migration. Even for those who consider “Hispanic” a race, the understanding of this term is cultural and historical, not genetic (for example, in the ideas of the eminent Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos). Race is not a dichotomous variable. The Latin American experience shows us this, and the US would do well to heed that lesson to break down its dualistic racial paradigm.

The second point to be made is that the genetics and genomics revolution of the last two decades or so does have implications for what we understand as ‘race,’ but not in the way that people like Richwine want to argue. Our workshop examined the idea of ‘race’ in light of recent genetics and genomic research in order to see whether it has consequences for our conceptualization of ‘racial’ identities and categories, and also for policies related to health disparities. These are complex and as of yet unresolved questions, but they certainly do not buttress the idea that there are such things as natural entities called ‘’races’’ and that they are rooted in genetic grounds. Recent research shows that humans share about 97% of the same genetic material with orangutans (an animal beloved by visitors to this blog). It also tells us that orangutans are more genetically diverse among themselves than are humans. In other words, people are more alike, across regional populations, than we are different.

And even within the small areas of difference, no evidence exists that such differences make for strictly separate human categories that are essentially discrete. It may be true that some populations share some genetic markers among themselves more than with others, but these differences are minimal. As epidemiologist Jay Kaufman of McGill has argued, the more we learn about the human genome, the closer we are to individuated genetic understanding, not to the construction of broad, essentially-unchangeable human groups. Richwine’s error is to think that IQ is a stable phenotype that reflects universal intelligence. Yes, we should take the genomics revolution as a challenge to simple social-constructivist views of race, but we cannot make the error of thinking that it validates a reification of the complex sociopolitical categories that we call ‘races.’

The last point is that the rudimentary statistical analysis of the kind that Richwine carried out ignores the important interface between social realities and genetics. Besides the problems noted above, we can underscore that even IQ test results are culturally-shaped, and not some measure of a primordial, biological mental ability. Rather, they reflect the intertwining of some aspects of mental capacity with education, life experiences, socioeconomic status, and other contingent contexts. They are not measures of pure intelligence (a dubious concept as well). What we ought to be advocating is not some sort of eugenics-based retrograde Nativist policy that reminds us of the 19th century, but improved educational access for all, and a fair, uniform immigration policy that minimizes discrimination, not enhances it.

It is both morally and intellectually disingenuous to propose what Borjas et al. have been advocating for years now. To claim to favor more immigration of those with “higher IQ’s” or more human capital flies in the face of the fact that low-human capital immigrants contribute profoundly to US economic growth due to their low wages in key industries such as construction, agriculture, and also the service sector. In manufacturing, Hispanics are underpaid relative to their economic value, as sociologist Arthur Sakamoto has shown. Ethically, it is unacceptable for a modern liberal-democratic state to promote high-IQ selectivity in immigration, for this policy advocates unequal treatment rather than uniform standards for all (in this light, Canadian immigration policy, which makes distinctions based on human capital, may be suspect as well, owing to the brain drain that it induces in poorer nations).

As educators, we have a special responsibility to provide non-superficial answers to complex questions. The idea of race is a fraught one. As the Kennedy School is my alma mater, I must say that it is time that policy questions not be treated as merely quantitative or mechanical issues. Public policy schools must also provide coursework that deepens analyses, no thins them down. “Race” is a concept that involves normative, political, historical, cultural, economic, and social forces in a complex interplay. It cannot be bandied about willy-nilly with no sensitivity to them. This idea applies to all racial categories, but it is perhaps most salient for the term “Hispanic,” owing to the rich diversity of ethnic origins that have gone into its making over a long historical period. It is befuddling that no one on Richwine’s committee seems to have been aware of this (in particular Jencks, who has written on these issues in the past).

It is time for antediluvian academics to step aside and give more space to the new generations of scholars that are able to engage in a critique of the all-too-dominant idea that race is merely a social construct but without falling into an antiquated racial essentialism. It is time for a real national dialogue on race that will start new conversations. Our classrooms are a good place to begin these discussions.
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Diego A. von Vacano is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and author of The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Hispanic/Latin American Political Thought (Oxford UP) and is writing a new book on immigrant identities.

What’s Wrong with “Wetback”?: What a Congressman’s Slur Reveals

Alaska Congressman Don Young (R-AK) referred to Mexican farm workers as “wetbacks.” in a recent radio interview on KRBD-FM (Ketchikan, AK), Young was attempting to make a point about the automation in farm production, when he said this:

“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

This racist slur made by a sitting congressman is best understood in the longer prevailing U.S. historical context that categorizes Mexican immigrants as unequal, without real humanity, and undeserving of true dignity. Such a comment by an elected government official is the latest example of the white racial framing and the racializing of Latinas/os.Taken together, these reinforce white supremacy on a large structural level. White racist words, such as the Congressman’s, frame people of color as inferior and create a wider narrative of racial oppression, which whites utilize to protect their dominant position in society at the expense of ethnic minorities.

Don Young, Congressman from Alaska, referred to workers as "wetbacks"

(Image from here.)

In the public sphere, many whites commonly use terms such as “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” or simply “illegal.” All of these are problematic for the way they dehumanize entire groups of people. Recently the Associated Press announced that it was dropping the word “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook for proper usage; a victory against this demeaning and racist language was led by ARC and Rinku Sen.  For the record, the AP stylebook doesn’t condone the use of the term “wetback” either.

Apparently, Congressman Young did not get the memo about language from the AP. The 79-year-old seems to be stuck in time as indicated by his public use of “wetback” and subsequent delayed apology issued only after his fellow conservative Republicans chastised him and demanded that he issue a sincere apology.

This begs the following questions: What’s wrong with the term “wetback”? What does it mean? And, where does it come from?

Historically, the racial epithet “wetback” has been used by whites to suppress Mexican immigrant laborers while at the same time solidifying white superiority and domination. The racial slur stems from the white imaginary and the ill conceived notion of Mexican immigrants becoming wet as they purportedly swam across the Rio Grande River, entering the U.S. in search of higher wages. As with many racist slurs, it’s based on several lies, the most obvious of which is that in many places the Rio Bravo del Norte (as it is known in Mexico) is shallow enough to walk across without getting more than your knees wet.

The exclusionary meaning of “wetback” has been part of the white mainstream psyche, appearing as early as June 20, 1920 in this New York Times article (pdf). Since that time, the epithet has retained and reproduced its original negative racist connotations, categorizing Mexicans – and by extension all Latinas/os – as inherently criminalistic, lawless, and undesirable.

Of course, Congressman Young is not the first elected official who has used the term “wetback.” According to a recent USA Today article, the term has a lengthy record of usage, particularly in the last 32 years:

  • 1981, House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill:“A conservative Texan and a conservative from Illinois may be on different sides. Would I vote the same on wetbacks as a guy from Arizona?”
  • 1983, Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C.:“You had people from Missouri. You had wetbacks from California that came in here for (Sen. Alan) Cranston. It wasn’t Iowans. And it was all bought and paid for. It was a fraud. One great, grand fraud.”
  • 1983, Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., “The main public perception is that we’re talking about wetbacks, that we’re talking about Mexican-Americans coming across the border.”
  • 1990, Veterans Secretary Edward Derwinski — serving under President George H.W. Bush — In a speech on drug abuse, he said drug cartels use “wetbacks” to smuggle drugs into the country. After Milder denounced the statement, he apologized, calling it “just one of those dumb slips.” But he also accused Milder of overreacting and having a “thin skin.”
  • 1990, Ann Richards’ campaign for Texas governor faced accusations she used the word in a 1976 speech. “If it takes a man to hire non-union labor, cross picket lines and work wetbacks then I say thank God for a woman or anyone else who is willing to take over,” she was alleged to have said in the speech. Richards, a Democrat, denied it and claimed her opponent fabricated that section of the speech and planted it in a Hispanic newspaper.
  • 2006, Arizona state Rep. Russell Pearce came under fire for praising a 1950s deportation program known as “Operation Wetback” on a radio program. He refused to apologize. “My critics don’t like history. They want to rewrite history. I didn’t use the term. I quoted a successful program,” he told the Arizona Republic.
  • 2008, Honolulu City Councilman Rod Tamhad publicly announced that “we don’t want any wetbacks, basically” on city development projects. He later said he never considered it a racial slur, and said, “I apologize if I offended anybody.”

The W-word carries additional baggage from a long history of blatantly racist legislation by predominantly white legislators trading in the politics of fear. Laws and policies such as Operation Wetback (1954), Operation Gatekeeper (1994), Arizona SB 1070/2162 (2010), and  and Texas Senate Bill 1128 (2013) create real harm and ensure the perpetuation of white domination.  And, as you can plainly see from the names of the bills and the text in each one, this harmful legislation begins with and is rooted in the language of “wetbacks” and “illegal immigrants.”

Racist slurs, such as “wetback,” continue to have real tangible social, cultural, and economic consequences. Such language is fundamental to the process of commodification and objectification. Brown people are exploited physically and economically, effectively designated as mere instruments meant to serve white systems of domination in order to sustain white privilege.

I ask you, how can Republicans rebrand their party by catering to Latina/o voters if their party permeates white racist anti-Latina/o ideology?