Reactions to the Latino Threat


Reactions to the Latino Threat

DURING THE 1960S, BESIDES RACIAL DIFFERENCES, THE CLASS FACTOR PREDOMINATED. In that era class effectively served as a proxy for race. Our nation’s history has sadly been contaminated with claims of racial superiority and official suppression of people of color. It began when our Founding Fathers lessened the human status of African slaves by effectively providing a classification of each slave at only “three fifths” of a person.1 Fifty plus years later, another minority, the Mexican mestizo, became a target and an addition to the “colored” race.

During the legislative debate leading to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,2 phobias surrounding the proposed law spread like a virus. Congress eventually succumbed to the Kennedy mystique and President Lyndon Johnson’s legislative skills. Kennedy pledged to fight for racial equality, and his assassination led many Americans and members of Congress to consider him a martyr. In apparent retaliation, extremely intolerant persons began to respond violently.

One notorious incident involved the June 1964 arrest and murder of three civil rights activists.3 The three men were helping minorities register to vote in Mississippi, and the killers, acting on the basis of pure racial hatred, assumed the responsibility of protecting the white ruling society. Some sociologists have addressed concerns of class prejudice in this and other similar circumstances, but the modern prevailing scholarship describes this class-prejudice issue as a red herring that diverts attention from the real dangers of racial prejudice (Reeves 2011, 837).

The Latino Threat

Once Latinos began their U.S. existence in 1848, white racial superiority continued as policy for more than one hundred years. Not until the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education to terminate de jure segregation in public schools did the barriers begin to fall.4 Southern states like Texas maintained these legally authorized separate schools for “colored” children.5 In other states, official school-board actions ultimately authorized Latino school segregation, which resulted as well from customs in the community.6

Officials often justified segregation of Latino kids on pedagogical bases, but their inclusion of dominant English-speaking Latinos in “Mexican” schools7 and the exemption for Bohemian and German non-English-speaking children inferred their intent to exclude only Mexican students from the “American” schools (Taylor 1934, 224). School administrators also imposed the “No Spanish Rule.” A violation resulted in punishment for the children, ranging from after-school detention; corporal punishment, such as having one’s open palm struck with a ruler; or writing on a piece of paper or on the blackboard five hundred times: “I will not speak Spanish on school grounds.”8 Administrators saw this punishment as essential to the “Americanization” of Latino children.

The punitive measures undoubtedly emanated from the wording of a Texas statute that dictated that teaching in a language other than English exposed teachers and administrators to a criminal charge and the loss of their school credentials. The statute was not repealed until 1969, after Congress enacted the Bilingual Education Act.9 Time has passed, but bad habits continue. In 2006, a principal in Kansas suspended a student for speaking Spanish at school, telling him that he was “not in Mexico.”10 Then, in 2013, the principal of a town near Houston announced over the intercom that Spanish would not be allowed (Karedes 2013).

The Spanish language is such a vital aspect of Latino culture that any “linguaphobic” measure strikes at the very essence of Latino ethnicity. Being chastised for speaking Spanish sends a negative message about that person’s parents and culture. Unfortunately, this harsh policy has encouraged victims, once they reach parenthood, to concentrate on teaching only English to their children. In the process, a positive aspect of their culture, Spanish, is lost in an effort to spare the child the same humiliation. The inevitable psychological harm explains why Dr. Angela Valenzuela, an educational expert, urges school systems instead to incorporate the child’s culture and bilingualism into the learning process (Valenzuela 1999, 20–29, 172–80).

In the political process, whites historically engaged in practices to minimize the power threat of racial minorities. One historical method included the imposition of the poll tax and other voting requirements that deprived minorities of their full right to vote (Perales 1937, 2:72–75). In some parts of Texas, Mexican-descent Latinos faced exclusion via the custom and practice that only “white citizens” could vote in the Texas Democratic Primary.11 The rules specifically dictated that a “Mexican” could not vote unless that person was of “full Spanish blood” (Perales 1937, 2:93). These overtly racist practices have been replaced by more subtle approaches, such as redistricting and voter identification rules. Nothing, however, works more effectively to control a minority person’s voting rights than the belief that his or her vote will not make a difference—a result accomplished by politically motivated gerrymandering.

Individuals are also discouraged in their advocacy—and chilled—by awareness that some minorities have suffered racially based hate-crime assaults. In 2008 alone, three Latino males were fatally attacked due to their actual or perceived ancestry. Whether the disparate treatment is overt or subtle, minorities are nonetheless impeded from enjoying life freely and fully. The crimes continued in the following years. In 2009, a New Jersey man e-mailed numerous threats to prevent individuals and groups from encouraging Latinos to participate, without discrimination, in various protected activities, such as accessing the court system and voting. The accused later admitted that his threats were motivated by race and national origin. In 2011, a federal judge sentenced him to 50 months in prison for threatening employees of five Latino civil rights organizations, including LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, LULAC, and MALDEF. The threats included words informing the recipient that he was on a “hit list just like any illegal alien” and that he was “dead meat.” He additionally made offensive and disparaging remarks about Latinos, specifically stating that “Mexicans are scum” (U.S. Department of Justice 2011b).

In another hate-based crime, Maricopa County (Arizona) Judge Susan Brnovich sentenced Gary Thomas Kelley to 27.5 years in prison for second-degree murder and aggravated assault in the killing of his neighbor, Juan Varela. Varela had been watering a tree in his front yard when Kelley confronted him and shot him in the neck with a revolver. Investigators said Kelley uttered several racial slurs and told the victim to “go back to Mexico.” The killing occurred during a week marked by protests and announcements that U.S. cities would boycott Arizona as a result of its new immigration law (Smith 2011). In another Arizona murder, an activist in an anti-immigration group, Shawna Forde, was convicted in the May 2009 vigilante killings of Raul Flores and his daughter, Brisenia. The DA portrayed Forde as a hit-squad ringleader who planned the raid and the murders to steal weapons, money, and drugs to finance a new anti-illegal-immigration outfit (CNN 2011).

Blalock’s Minority and Markert’s Latino Power Threat Theses

Blalock’s 1967 study about the “power-threat thesis” suggests that once a minority group’s population grows, the majority group perceives a threat and then reacts by enacting legal controls or other measures to protect the group’s dominant status (Blalock 1967; Markert 2010, 307). Specifically, Blalock hypothesized that white persons discriminate against African Americans on the basis of either their race or their class status. He discussed the degree to which race and class attitudes are interchangeable. Blalock concluded that a major barrier to the social study centers on the fact that minority membership remains as the defining criterion of class position (Blalock 1967, 200–202).

Blalock focused his study on Anglo and African American relations. Today’s demographics, with Latinos surpassing African Americans as the nation’s largest minority group, require an adjustment of the power threat concept. The U.S. Census Bureau in 2012 tabulated the Latino population at 53 million, or 17 percent of the total U.S. population. The estimate does not include the 3.7 million people who reside in Puerto Rico (Lopez, Gonzalez-Barrera, and Cuddington 2013, 3, 5).

Unlike in the late 1960s when Blalock published his study, current scholars address the race and class factors as “interconnected, not oppositional, in explaining inequity” (Reeves 2011, 837). Anthropologist Leo R. Chavez introduced his Latino threat thesis in 2008, with a reference to the September 11 attack on our nation. Chavez proceeded to note how the perceived Latino threat existed well before 2001 by those who feared the growing Mexican and other Latino immigrants. In his first chapter, Chavez presents “The Latino Threat Narrative” by documenting how forty years prior to the fall of the Twin Towers, white scholars provocatively noted how the future of the United States as an Anglo-Protestant culture was in danger of extinction (Chavez 2008, 21).

The theme continued on the front covers of Time and U.S. News and World Report. The Latino threat theme received continued media coverage with the publication of books by persons not connected with academia. Some of the inflammatory titles included books by conservative spokesman and sometimes politician Patrick J. Buchanan: Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, and State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America (Chavez 2008, 28–31).

More recently, sociologist John P. Markert studied the power threat thesis in relations between the dominant group and Latinos. Markert advanced the argument that the intensity of the anti-Latino hostility correlates not only with size but also with the group’s lifestyle as distinct from that of the majority. In addition, he ascribes the more passionate animosity toward Latinos to two unique characteristics. First, the public unfortunately perceives that most Latinos possess an unauthorized status. Second, many believe that Latinos resist learning English (Markert 2010, 308).

The immigration status as a lightning-rod issue clearly has resulted in severe discriminatory treatment. However, the language issue is more delicate for the Latino community for several reasons. First, language bias has not been regarded by the courts as a proxy for race or national-origin discrimination. As a result, many Latinos have been subjected to unequal treatment for speaking Spanish in private and public jobs, and, as previously mentioned, disciplined for speaking Spanish at school. Markert adds to Blalock’s 1967 power threat thesis by inserting the potent role of the media into the mix. The ability to reach a large audience influences the extent of the public’s hostility toward Latinos because media attention makes the group seem larger than its actual size and thus more threatening.

In response to the mistaken view that Latinos lack sufficient interest in assimilating and learning English, Markert observed that 85 percent of U.S. Latinos are either citizens or authorized aliens (Markert 2010, 313). In addition, Los Angeles officials in the 1980s reported 40,000 people on waiting lists to learn English in night courses, with classes operating twenty-four hours a day (Gallegos 1994, 56). The percent of Latinos who speak English well increases moderately during the first full decade of residence, but improvements in English proficiency typically decelerate in middle age (Myers and Pitkin 2011). Among all nationalities, 90 percent of immigrants who arrive in their youth report speaking English well in adulthood (Gallegos 1994, 22).

The United States began as a predominantly English-speaking country, with a view that it was a haven for white people only. Once Germans began to predominate in certain colonies, the pro-English efforts targeted German immigrants.12 When Germans lost the ability to speak German fluently, Latinos replaced them as targets of the Americanization process. Once the Latino population indicated a high birth rate, the dominant group saw them as a threat to the American way of life. As a result, English-only movements began anew in the early 1980s. The number of states promoting English-only laws went from only four states before 1980 to twenty-nine states in 2010 (Markert 2010, 318).

Notwithstanding these linguaphobic efforts, federal law requires some accommodation for residents and citizens who are limited in their English proficiency. For example, pursuant to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,13 federally funded programs must take affirmative steps to ensure that limited-English-proficient individuals are not excluded from the program’s benefits.14 In addition, the 1965 Voting Rights Act,15 as amended in 1975, requires bilingual ballots in certain communities with a certain number of language minority voters (U.S. Department of Justice n.d., “Minority Language Citizens”).

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