The Conversation the Press Isn’t Having

Even when people of color do very American things, they still aren’t seen as being members of American culture.

Tom Brokaw
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

There was something sadly poetic about hundreds of journalists being cut loose by some of the biggest media outlets the same week that the veteran news anchor Tom Brokaw provoked a firestorm of criticism with his comments about Latinos and immigration on last Sunday’s Meet the Press.

Brokaw made the case that the mere presence of Latinos has scared conservatives into supporting the push for a border wall. He explained that conservatives in the Donald Trump era have told him they are taking a hard stance on Latin American immigration because “I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.”

“Hispanics should work harder at assimilation,” Brokaw said. “That’s one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time. They ought not to be just codified in their communities, but make sure that all of their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities, and that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.”

The problem, I realized, was bigger than a single journalist, advanced in years and speaking off the cuff, making unsupportable claims. It was that no one on the panel was positioned to respond to, or able to explain, from their own lived experience, what he had failed to understand. And listening to Brokaw speak, I couldn’t help but think that by laying off hundreds of journalists—many of them journalists of color—HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Yahoo, AOL, and Gannett were raising the likelihood that marginalized groups will continue to be excluded from these conversations.

What Brokaw and the conservatives he cited fail to comprehend is the degree to which people of color already go out of their way to placate white paranoia, easing fear at their own expense.

From a young age, most people of color are taught that they have to minimize their identity in some form in order to gain acceptance and appear less threatening. It’s a full-time job, with no days off.

I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Bad Boys, in which the co-stars, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, arrive at the house of a potential lead in a murder case. Smith and Lawrence, who play brash Miami detectives, are immediately suspicious because the door is wide open. Smith shouts, “Don’t be alarmed, we’re Negroes,” as the pair enters the house. Lawrence tells Smith, “There’s too much bass in your voice. That scares white folks. You got to sound like them.” And then Lawrence hilariously imitates a white person’s voice.

It was a funny scene, but it was baked in the uncomfortable truth that people of color must be fluent in code-switching as a condition of their survival.

The burden of duality has become even heavier for people of color because conservatives, to their credit, have successfully defined who gets to be considered American. That definition is almost always concentrated on promoting and enabling entitled whiteness—the kind that makes it perfectly acceptable to call the police on black people for sitting peacefully in Starbucks, barbecuing in the park, entering their own apartment, or engaging in the very American practice of selling lemonade to neighbors. Even when people of color do very American things, they still aren’t seen as being members of American culture.

Had Meet the Press bothered to facilitate a conversation that wasn’t centered on white fragility, it could have told viewers that the use of Spanish among Latinos in major metropolitan cities has declined substantially over the past decade, from 78 percent in 2006 to 73 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.

Pew also noted that the use of Spanish among Latinos drops significantly with each generation. Overall, 71 percent of second-generation Latino parents who have at least one immigrant parent speak Spanish to their children. But among third-generation Latino parents, that number drops to 49 percent. From 2000 to 2014, the percentage of Latinos age 5 to 17 who said they speak only English at home jumped from 73 percent to 88 percent.

So most young Hispanics seem to have been doing exactly what Brokaw and others with his mind-set want: learning to assimilate. But there is a tinge of sadness to these numbers, as well. Many immigrants have insisted that their children learn only English, even if that means surrendering a chunk of their own cultural inheritance, because they believe that speaking Spanish will lead to their children being unfairly stereotyped and prevent their advancement.

Instead of being upset by the persistence of Hispanic enclaves, Brokaw should have been asking how the hostility directed at Latinos has created an environment in which many of them only feel safe to be their true and full self in their own communities.

It’s futile to try to capitulate to people who will never be satisfied. The irony here is that it’s not Latinos who have historically struggled to assimilate in a changing world. It’s people like Brokaw.