Vox Article on Latino Immigrants Latest Example of Media’s Diversity Problem

Feb 19, 2015
9:07 AM

In yet another example of a news outlet where a non-Latino attempts to report on Latinidad, Dara Lind’s Vox article attempts to jump from data to analysis without digging deeper or at least presenting a more authentic picture of the original study Lind cites.

If you read the title of the article, “Grandkids of Latino immigrants are less educated than their parents. Blame assimilation,” and then read the content which reinforces that headline, Lind focuses on assimilation for the downward spiral that Latino grandchildren experience in education, crime and other outcomes.

Yet when you return to the original September 2014 study entitled “Immigrant Youth Outcomes Patterns by Generation and Race and Ethnicity” by Dr. Maria E. Enchautegui (who is a Latina and an economist at the Urban Institute), the researcher does not automatically ascribe assimilation as the reason for their downward trend as Lind’s Vox article wants you to believe. In fact, Enchautegui takes a more nuanced approach in which she cites other research in how structural inequality may also be behind the trend.

Enchautegui cites the study from Generations of Exclusion coauthored by Dr. Vilma Ortiz (a past contributor to Latino Rebels) and Dr. Edward Telles. Similar to Enchautegui’s study, Ortiz and Telles found a similar “U-turn” in which second generation Mexican-Americans are better off than their immigrant parents but their children and grandchildren are worse off than the second generation. They attribute that to institutional barriers—that is, chronic underfunding of Mexican-American majority schools, punitive immigrant policies and racism in interacting with whites. The pathway of assimilation for descendants of Latino immigrants is not just about having conversations with their neighbors in English instead of Spanish or exchanging their salchipapas for hot dogs on a bun.  The path for assimilation for their descendants includes facing the negative realities of American race relations.

What perplexes me is that Lind does not include the language of discrimination, inequality or racism to explain what may behind the “U-Turn.” (In Enchautegui’s original article, there is a whole section with the title “Analysis through the Lenses of Inequality and Assimilation.”) When I ran a word cloud to see which words were most prominent in Lind’s article, you will see below that these words are nowhere in the Lind’s text:


In essence, Lind has erased the possibility of external discrimination and internalized discrimination as explanation for the “U Turn.” This leads the reader to believe that Americanization hurts U.S. Latinos when the real cause may also be discrimination and racism that forms the “assimilation” experience for U.S. Latinos of latter generations.

In the final paragraph, Lind posits the possibility that successful third-generation Latinos may not identify as Latino at all and claim white instead and that less-successful third-generation Latinos are more likely to classify themselves as Latino. As all good researchers do, Enchautegui mentions that the racial classification of third-generation Latinos may be a technical problem in data collection that limits “the extent to which we can be sure about how this generation fares” (Enchautegui’s direct language). While it can be argued that the opposite effect may be true, that is, Latinos of latter generations are more likely to identify as nonwhite.

This site spent a great deal of time focusing on this issue last year when Nate Cohen of The New York Times misreported preliminary conclusions about a study that was still being finalized. In addition, if you recall the work of Villanova sociologists, Latinos are constantly changing their racial classifications out of ambivalence or confusion and that Latinos are more likely to switch racial identifications the longer they are in the country. I am less concerned by the veracity of Enchautegui’s statement but by the way that author of the Vox article frames this technical limitation of the study. Lind, who has a larger and less statistically savvy audience, concludes her article with the following:

…if Latino identity becomes something that only the least successful Latinos hold on to, that could pose a real threat to the group’s growing electoral and social power…

How did this statement about racial classification of latter generation go from being a technical limitation on Enchautegui’s work to a threat of a whole community’s grip on politics and society? Is Lind’s piece just the latest example of a misleading media narrative about U.S. Latinos being perpetuated by non-Latinos (see Cohn, see Jamelle Bouie)? And if so, why does the mainstream English-language media continue to push this faulty narrative?

In psychology, there is this principle called the “primacy/recency effect.” When people are asked to recall what they read, they are most likely to recall the beginning and ending of what they read. Lind’s Vox article starts off with the idea that assimilation is to be blamed for the downward trend of third-generation Latinos’ social and economic outcomes. Then she concludes her article that the whitening racial classifications of Latinos will threaten their power in U.S. Latino politics and society. These will be the two salient points that readers will react to and remember when discussing the very distressing trend of the outcomes of third-generation Latinos.

While I am encouraged that Vox decided to report on an understudied group in U.S. Latino demographics and used a research study done by a rigorous Latina researcher, I am concerned yet again about diversity in our newsrooms. I will repeat what other Rebeldes have said: When mainstream journalistic outlets lack editorial diversity to discuss the realities of U.S. Latino experiences, there is a great danger to misrepresent and misinform.

How do these media outlets start solving this serious problem? Hire more Latinos for one, but also begin to have real discussions with those who have a deeper understanding of the issues. But don’t take my word for it. When Latino Rebels asked its Facebook and Twitter community about Lind’s article, they shared some very insightful opinions. Hopefully, Lind and her Vox editors take the time to read those comments and engage the U.S. Latino community some more.


You can follow Christina Saenz-Alcántara on Twitter @ctsaenz.