Language, Labels and Politics

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In an IVN article published yesterday, Heather Rogers considered how census labels such as ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ fuel debate over the identification and even the self-identity of a large national minority in the United States.  In our national political dialogue, broad terms often provide an easy way for strategists, commentators and reporters to address complex issues with vague generalities. Such labeling practices, and the often faulty generalizations that they are based on and that result from them, can also be seen with many common terms in our political vernacular.

Commentators throw around the word ‘Independents,’ for instance, as if it signified some sort of political monolith, rather than a diverse array of perspectives from across the political spectrum. We can see something similar in the terms ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino,’ with the noteworthy exception that individuals who are identified by these terms by and large do not identify themselves by them.

Just last month, the Pew Hispanic Center released results from a survey of over 1,200 Latino respondents under the headline: “When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity.” When asked what term they use to describe themselves most often, just 24% said they identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino, while a majority of 51% said they are most likely to use their family’s country of origin, and another 21% said they describe themselves as American.

According to Pew’s findings, these numbers shift the longer an individual’s family had been in the United States, with a greater share identifying themselves as American. Those polled in the survey included foreign born respondents, as well as first, second and third generation citizens. Among first generation hispanics, 62% identified themselves by their country of origin, 28% called themselves Hispanic, and just 8% identified as American. Among second generation respondents, only 43% identified themselves by their family’s country of origin, 35% identified themselves as an American and just 18% said they are Hispanic. Among third generation respondents, 48% identified themselves as Americans while just 28% identified themselves by their family’s country of origin and 21% said they were Hispanic.

In the comments to Heather Rogers’ article, one reader asked: why is this even an issue? One potential answer is that this is an issue because the federal government, not to mention the character of Republican-Democrat party politics, makes it one. Though most Hispanics do not identify themselves as Hispanics, the federal government does. The authors of the Pew report write:

“In its classification system, the federal government recognizes just one ethnic group, Hispanic/Latino . . . The government also classifies people according to five major racial groups . . . When filling out census forms and other government documents, people are allowed to select their own ethnicity and race, or multiple races. Because Hispanics are classified as an ethnic group but not a race, they can face particular challenges.”

Though there does not appear to be a widespread sense of pan-ethnic identity among Hispanic and Latino Americans, nearly forty years after the US government instituted the use of the terms, some observers argue that the course of the nation’s politics and the tenor of our national dialogue could change that.

“There is reason to believe that the aggressive state immigration laws being passed across the country, as well as the tense political climate surround immigration policy more broadly, have heightened a sense of Latino pan-ethnic identity,” writes Gabriel Sanchez at Latino Decisions. He continues: “Regardless of immigration status, Latinos realize that they may face discriminatory treatment due to being defined by their ethnicity.”