Killing Minorities Softly With Words Intended to Be Helpful

Born of a movement intent on preparing a "hobbled" people to take their place at the starting line, as President Lyndon B. Johnson put in the speech that introduced the Great Society, the language used to portray nonwhites has become more oppressive than empowering.

A deficiency-oriented approach to describing minorities may have once been helpful in the battle to overcome discriminatory barriers and promote programs to level the playing field, but it is today a purveyor of minority stereotypes. One result is that liberal activists and academics, the primary standard-bearers of this 30-year-old outlook, are now among the most vocal prophets of doom for the state's Latinos and, in some cases, have unwittingly become allies of a new generation of American nativists.

Since the mid-1960s, scholarly discourse on Latinos and other minorities has been driven by the vicissitudes of a political system that channels the spoils to the loser. Politicians and activists seeking to demonstrate their communities' shortcomings and pathologies in order to qualify for federal programs and money have turned to the academy for the requisite demographics and sociological studies. The vast majority of research money coming from government and private foundations has gone to studies embodying the deficiency-oriented approach. Academic studies of Latinos, for example, tend to dwell on internal dysfunctions and external barriers impeding Latino social and economic ascendance.

David E. Hayes-Bautista is director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health at UCLA. Gregory Rodriguez is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. They are both associate editors at Pacific News Service.

This sociological approach to Latinos is comparable to what engineers call failure analysis. After designing a bridge, engineers look for points at which the structure is most likely to falter. But unlike builders who understand how a structure holds together, too few academics bother to explore the broader foundations upon which Latino American culture rests. Their correspondingly narrow and exclusive focus on "Latino problems" blinds them to the abilities and qualities of the population as a whole. Ironically, they overlook or ignore those very characteristics that offer the best hope to remedy social ills.

Making matters worse are various academics and activists who oppose rounding out the image of Latinos. Discussing a recent study on the growing Latino middle class, a researcher for one Latino advocacy group warned that Latinos "shouldn't oversell their progress," lest they jeopardize the continuation of programs for the poor. A few years ago, a Latina federal bureaucrat urged a researcher not to publish data on low Latino infant mortality rates because it could undermine her efforts to present Latinos as the most needy population. In the upside-down world of minority politics, too much "good" news is bad news. Apparently, it hasn't occurred to anyone that Latinos can attend to the disadvantaged in their population and acknowledge--even celebrate--their progress.

Inherent in the deficiency-oriented approach to minorities is an indictment of American society. When painting a bleak picture of society's weakest members, many academics have sought to showcase the essential unfairness of American life. And the greater the dysfunctionality and victimization of their studied group, the more searing their indictment.

Yet, this scholarship rarely serves as a clarion call for radical reforms. Quite the contrary. It presents Latinos as essentially passive and fatalistic people, largely incapable of making it in modern society, let alone leading a revolution.

These negative images have been largely accepted by those who feel most threatened by the state's growing Latino presence. As such, the "appropriate" response is to limit the growth of this undesirable population. In a perverse dialectic, the more advocates of Latino victimization pressed their case, the more Latino rejectionists found fodder for their arguments for curtailing Latino immigration. Immigration-reform activists have heartily welcomed a slew of recent academic studies, citing current income, occupation and education data, predicting doom for the region's Latino immigrants.

When the president of the National Council of La Raza called the new welfare law "the worst thing that has happened to Hispanics since President Polk declared war on Mexico," he was bolstering a negative stereotype of Latino immigrants. While there is no doubt that many immigrants will be adversely affected by the reform, poor Mexican immigrants, overall, have lower rates of welfare dependency than do low-income newcomers from China, Russia or Vietnam.

As he approaches his second term, President Bill Clinton has ducked few opportunities to say that the era of big government is over. With government shrinking, minorities will discover that their problems may no longer be their most potent source of power. The private sector will increasingly replace the public sector as the greatest hope for Latino advancement. The continued propagation of doom-laced definitions of Latinos could thus have chilling consequences: No one invests in failure.

But even more significant than the unintended political and economic consequences of a victimization vision is the pernicious effect it has on Latinos themselves. "Can't you find anything we can do right?" a Latino congressman once yelled at a young Latino academic. Latino educators warn of the negative effects that fatalistic images of Latinos have on schoolchildren. Any therapist will tell you that an ethnic identity steeped in expectations of low achievement makes development of a positive self-identity all the more difficult.

Liberal activists and academics can still do a great deal to improve the lot of disadvantaged Latinos. Indeed, their work is no less noble or needed than it was 30 years ago. What is no longer needed or welcome, however, is their tired politics of dysfunction, which has had us selling our weaknesses at the expense of our strengths.

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