Do the Democrats Have a Latino Problem?

In a piece that should concern everyone heading in to the 2018 midterm elections, Leon Krauze makes the argument that Democrats have a Latino problem. He cites two things that are cause for concern. The first is that Latinos don’t seem to be exhibiting the anti-Trump antipathy that we all expected.

According to [2016] exit polls, Trump won 29 percent of the Hispanic vote, outperforming Mitt Romney’s tally by 2 points…

While Trump was enacting his anti-immigrant agenda, Latino voters seemed to have slowly warmed up to the president. In last week’s NPR/PBS/Marist poll, 41 percent of Hispanics approved of Trump’s performance (black Americans? 12 percent).  This is no outlier. Another recent poll put Trump’s approval among Latinos at 35 percent.

The other cause for concern is turnout.

At a national level, Hispanics have consistently registered lower turnouts than white, black, or Asian voters. As a matter of fact, more eligible Hispanic voters have decided to stay home rather than vote in every election since 1996.

Anyone who has been counting on Latinos to make up a significant share of a blue wave next month will find that analysis to be deeply discouraging. But it suffers from several significant problems.

First of all, note that Krauze slips between referring to this demographic group as Latinos and Hispanics. That is an indication of a deeper problem: when it comes to Latinos/Hispanics, we really don’t know who we’re talking about. It might help to look at the historical roots of the two words. Gabriela Herstik explains the origin of the word Hispanic.

The term Hispanic was coined by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1970 as a way to group Spanish-speaking communities together. Before that, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban immigrants were all classified as “white,” while those with Latin American ancestry would go by their nationality and where they lived in the United States.

The problem with calling people Hispanic is that it excludes everyone who doesn’t speak Spanish in the Latin American community — like those from Haiti, or Brazil, which just so happens to be South America’s largest country. And what about those who are Afro-Latinx?

The Urban Dictionary actually does a good job of explaining the origin of Latino/Latina.

For well-educated people who are native speakers of a Latin language (French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, and others not so well-known), a Latino/Latina is anyone, regardless of race or nationality, whose language and culture is mainly from the Latin world. The Latin world is composed of the Latin-European countries and the places around the globe that they colonized and left a real strong mark.

The Latin European lands became Latin when The Roman Empire took over them for centuries giving them its culture. These new Latin lands did the same to the lands they conquered in America, Africa and Asia.

In the U.S.A. (where global education is basic) the word took a wrong turn meaning only one of these three things: 1)the people from Latin-America; 2) All Spanish-Speaking people; and 3)Pure or mixed Native-American people who speak Spanish even when their customs may still be very indigenous. Sadly, ignorance has allowed many people (even people from Latin America) to believe the U.S.form.

More than anything else, this hodge-podge of definitions is a perfect example of how racial categories are not linked to anything scientific, but are completely cultural concepts. To put it bluntly, white people needed a way to distinguish themselves from “the brown” and came up with a category that linked people who had absolutely nothing in common. Whereas other racial constructs were built around minor genetic differences in appearance, Hispanic and Latino/Latina were constructed primarily around language.

When attempting to group Hispanic and Latino people for the purposes of understanding them as a political unit, one is required to assume that an indigenous Mexican has something in common with an African Cuban or a European Peruvian. That is absurd.

The other problem with Krauze’s analysis is his reliance on polls. Because it is so unclear who we are talking about when we use labels like Hispanic and Latino—as well as the fact that in most states, their numbers are so small—polling firms have been notoriously awful at capturing the group’s political inclinations. For example, while Krauze quotes the 2016 presidential exit polls, Latino Decisions wrote an article about them titled “Lies, Damn Lies and Exit Polls.”

Finally, a lot of us (including yours truly) often make the mistake of assuming that Trump’s xenophobic approach to immigration should be the issue that drives Latinos to the polls. But once again, that assumes that everyone represented in this large swath of voters feels threatened by the president’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. Do Cuban Americans in Miami and Puerto Ricans in New York view all of that the same as Mexican Americans in Texas? How about the Latinos who have lived in the Southwest since before white people arrived?

I am not saying that Krauze is wrong to suggest that Democrats have a Latino problem. But I think that we all need to take a few steps back and recognize that we don’t really know much about the group of people we have identified as Latino or Hispanic. My hunch is that there probably isn’t much commonality across the different groups that fall under that label, which makes it difficult for political scientists to pontificate. Nevertheless, I’m sure they’ll keep trying.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .