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.
___________________________

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?

When Whites Attack: The Deadly Consequences of Anti-Latina/o Violence

The U.S. has a long and intense history of institutionalized racial violence against Latinas/os in the form of physical assaults, beatings, and murders. The violent racialized framing of Latinas/os has been a constant narrative throughout U.S. history including, but not limited to, the U.S. – Mexican War (1846-1848), the lynching of Mexicans (1848-1928), and the Zoot Suit Riots (1943). The use of deadly force has played a central role in reproducing racial oppression, resulting in the dehumanization, marginalization, subjugation, and ultimately the countless killings of people of color. Anti-immigrant and anti-Latina/o sentiment continues to negatively shape the perceptions of Latinas/os as both the perpetual foreigner and as a permanent threat to the white status quo. This white racial framing (Feagin, 2013) is used to justify white’s often brutal and savage mistreatment of Latinas/os.

The following cases highlight not only white-on-Brown violence, but the lived realities for Latinas/os in the purported land of the free and home of the brave. The proceeding examples represent a small sample of white racial violence. The first case took place April 2006 in Houston, Texas. This hate crime involved the brutal torture and sodomy of a young Latino male and his subsequent suicide. After knocking 16 year old David Ritcheson unconscious, the two white teens, David Tuck, 18, and Keith Turner, 17, continued to punish the defenseless victim:

For the next five hours, they tortured him: They stripped him naked, kicked him with steel-toed boots, burned him with cigarettes and choked him with a garden hose. Tuck shouted racial epithets and carved a swastika in the boy’s chest with a knife. Turner grabbed a plastic patio umbrella pole and placed it near the victim’s rectum. Tuck kicked the pole several inches in.

The following hate crime occurred on July 12, 2008 in the city of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Two white teens identified as Brandon Piekarsky, 16, and Derrick Donchak, 18, beat Luis Ramirez, 25, to death while yelling racial epithets and told him:

This is Shenandoah. This is America. Go back to Mexico.” According to testimony, Donchak beat Ramirez while holding a thick piece of metal identified at trial as a “fist pack.” After another of their friends punched Ramirez in the face, causing him to fall back and hit his head on the ground, Piekarsky kicked Ramirez in the head as he lay unconscious and prone on the ground. After Piekarsky kicked Ramirez, he told a bystander who was married to a Latino man to “tell your Mexican friends to get out of Shenandoah or you will be lying next to him.

A few months later on November 8, 2008 another Latino male was assaulted by seven teenagers and eventually killed by Jeffrey Convoy, 17, in a Patchogue, Long Island train station. The victim identified as 37 year old Marcelo Lucero was an:

Ecuadorian immigrant who worked at a local dry cleaning store, was stabbed in the chest and left to die. The teens were convicted of gang assault; prosecutors said the attack was part of targeted hate crimes against Latinos in the area, which the perpetrators purportedly called “Mexican hopping” or “beaner hopping.

Unlike whites, Latinas/os are forced to regularly navigate, resist, and deal with white racist xenophobia. For example, on May 6, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona, Juan Varela, 44 was gunned down in front of his brother and mother by his white neighbor Gary Kelley, 51, who screamed at Varela, in a drunken rage, “You fucking Mexican, go back to Mexico!”

The white racist structure identifies Latina/o bodies as non-white, creating entitlement and privilege; consequently whites are empowered to commit acts of violence against people deemed subhuman and inferior. One of the most recent examples of white violence transpired on January 26, 2013 in Liburn, Georgia; proving that even pulling into the wrong driveway can get you killed. According to news reports Rodrigo Diaz, 22 was driving to one of his passengers friend’s house and mistakenly pulled into the driveway of Philip Sailors, 69. Sailors’ lawyer contends that his client shot Diaz because he was under the impression that Diaz was trying to rob his home:

When officers arrived, Angie Rebolledo, Diaz’s girlfriend, had blood on her jeans, both arms and both hands as she was attempting to get a response from him and screamed frantically that her boyfriend had been shot, according to police.

These murders are best understood within the historical trend of white nativism and discrimination, and illustrate the systemic nature of white-on-Brown racial killings. Anti-Latina/o violence has not stopped. In the past seven years there has been numerous Latinas/os murdered by whites. Although each case is separate and carried out by individual whites, collectively over time, these acts of aggression represent a systematic pattern of white antagonism and violence against Latinas/os (Feagin, 2013). White supremacy is not only defined but relies on violence to replicate the existing social system; white-on-Brown violence is foundational to the U.S. both historically and contemporary (Feagin, 2013); Delgado, 2009.

Latinas/os can be victims of physical assaults and murder at any given place or moment. Whites do not deal with this same fear, hostility, and threat of violence. Ultimately Latinas/os and their families are left to deal with death and devastation.

R.I.P.
David Ritcheson (1989-2007)
Luis Ramirez (1983-2008)
Marcelo Lucero (1971-2008)
Juan Varela (1966-2010)
Rodrigo Diaz (1991-2013)

Is Marco Rubio Republicans’ Salvation with Latinos?

Anyone who watched television or read newspapers after the Republican’s losses in the November election saw many references to Marco Rubio. Convinced that they needed to gain Latino support if they were going to do better in future elections, Republicans began to develop a “Latino strategy.” A more moderate stance toward “immigration” (read: immigrants without documents from Latin America) was part of this strategy. Another component was improving their image with Latinos by a larger role to Latino Republican office holders. Foremost among the latter is Marco Rubio, Senator from Florida, son of Cuban immigrants. He leads the Republican campaign on immigration reform. Hailed as a rising star, he has been mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in the 2016 election.

Rubio has many features that seem to appeal to Latinos. He is fluent in Spanish and boasts of his hard-working Cuban immigrant parents. Unlike many Cuban origin political leaders in Florida, Rubio is not an Ivy Leaguer. He went to a modest college and law school and borrowed $100,000 in student loans. A regular guy. This might help explain why he won 55 percent of the Latino vote in his successful run in 2010 for the U.S. Senate.

To be a significant magnet for the Latino vote, Rubio would have to appeal not only to Cubans in Florida but also to other Latinos throughout the country, Mexican Americans in particular. They represent the largest number of Latino voters and I don’t see why Rubio would necessarily appeal to them anymore than another candidate.

Rubio’s immigration reform plan does not stand out when compared with the Democrats’. It has much in common with Obama’s except that it falls short on a crucial issue: it does not provide a path to citizenship to the “Dreamers.”

Finally, it is not likely that Republicans would unite behind Rubio should he present a bill that formalizes his immigration plan.

If his immigration plan is not as generous as Obama’s, his stand on entitlements looks miserly vis-à-vis the Democrats’. Latinos, as other individuals, would face the adverse effects of cuts in government programs that Republicans obsess about. These are not good auguries if Rubio has ambitions to gain Latino support for a candidacy for the Presidency. As a long-oppressed population, Latinos will look askance at a candidate that doesn’t address their interests wholeheartedly and is a member of a party long devoted to the interests of white elites. Bottom-line is that being a “Trophy Latino” won’t be enough to get him elected President.

But what about Cubans? This Cuban exile will not vote for Rubio because of the tenor of his political ideas. But I’m a liberal academic. How about average Cubans? I asked my Cuban sample in Miami, that is, my aunt and her children, about their views on Rubio. They said that they would have to see his entire agenda before they could support him. My aunt and my cousins are a tiny, non-probability sample. However, they have provided me for years with reliable information about the Cuban community in Florida. Knowing Rubio’s policies, I doubt that they’ll vote for him. My hunch is that many other Cubans will feel the same way.

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.
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[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.