The New York Times, MSNBC both tackle Latino identity. And fail

In reporting on Latino racial identity, The New York Times doesn’t include any Latinos and MSNBC limits itself to one 

The New York Times recently set off a firestorm of controversy with its report, “More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White,” by Nate Cohn. Now it appears MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes” may have made matters worse.

It is already difficult for many journalists to decipher and explain complex issues involving race. But in both cases of the Times and MSNBC, the problem appears to be journalists talking and writing about Latino identity with limited or no authority.

Cohn’s column, for example, is based on a Pew Research report that, itself, was based on a  yet-to-be-published study presented at the annual Population Association of America meeting. In it, he states that Hispanics are choosing to change their race from “some other race” to “white” on US Census forms. However, he provides scant evidence to support this conclusion and a co-author of the study told Latino Rebels that Cohn’s inferences were his own, not that of the researchers.

Not only did Cohn, who is white, fail to include a source with a Latino perspective in his column that may have lent credibility and nuance, Hayes did little better when he included only one Latino on a panel discussion about the issue. The fact that Hayes tried to pack too much into his 10 minute segment also likely confused matters.

Jose Diaz Balart

Jose Diaz-Balart: “I think the race issue is much less a big deal among the Latino population than it is maybe in the white population or overall population in the United States.”

Hayes first veered from talking about the Pew report to introducing a video clip about the overall false construct of race in America. That’s a big enough subject to tackle, but then he introduced Jose Diaz-Balart to talk about the multi-faceted issue of Latino identity. Hays also invited surgeon and conservative pundit Ben Carson and Demos President Heather C. McGhee, both African American, to discuss race blindness, the concept of not seeing race at all or seeing past a person’s race. Another big issue. Hayes ended his segment by talking about how a growing Hispanic population will impact US politics.

It was just too much packed into too little time, so that none of it was done well.

For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll stick with the one topic of how news organizations attempt to parse race issues, often clumsily.

Hayes asked Diaz-Balart, MSBNC’s newest host, about the messiness of the “Hispanic Latino category.” Diaz-Balart responded that for Hispanics, race isn’t that “big a deal.”

“I think race is much less a big deal among the Latino population than it is maybe in the white population or overall population in the United States,” said Diaz-Balart. “I really do believe that people in the Latino community are looking for people that have sensitivity towards their plight. And if you happen to be darker or lighter, what really matters is what you’ve done and what you say you are willing to do to help those people who have found that because of their race they are, maybe, not having the same opportunities that others do.”

The panel needed three Latinos at the table to challenge statements like the one Diaz-Balart made, said Julio Ricardo Varela, the founder of LatinoRebels.com.

“It leads to a better conversation that is real,”  Varela wrote on a Facebook thread about MSNBC’s coverage of the issue. “We need to make sure we don’t tokenize ourselves either and let’s not pretend that the MSNBC segment was good TV or a good discussion. This has nothing to do with slamming anyone, it has to do with speaking out against irresponsible reporting by The New York Times and how such a misleading story leads to severe misinterpretation and a false narrative.”

Varela criticized the national newspaper for misreporting the original story. Varela wrote to the newspaper with questions, but said Sunday that he’s still waiting on answers. Varela said he’s worried that Cohn’s interpretation of the unpublished data is now being taken as fact, as MSNBC did, he said. “… if we perpetuate that fact, as journalists, we don’t do our jobs,” Varela added. 

Diaz-Balart, who is also a news anchor for Spanish language TV network, Telemundo, made reference to his African slave ancestors during his MSNBC appearance. But with green eyes and light skin, he could pass for a white Hispanic. If that matters.

Still, other Latino journalists suggested that Diaz-Balart’s comments represented the point of view of only a slice of Latino communities. The panel, they said, should have included Latinos of various skin colors.

Yvonne Latty says Afro-Latinos are being left out of the discussion.

Yvonne Latty says Afro-Latinos are being left out of the discussion.

Not knocking Diaz-Balart, but he was an odd choice to be booked on the panel, said Yvonne Latty, an Afro-Latina and journalism professor at New York University.

“It would have been fascinating to hear from an Afro-Latino in this case, who could have added a different perspective,” Latty said. “I have nothing against (Diaz-Balart) and I don’t want to bash him or his positive perspective, even though it has not been my reality at all.”

Latty was also critical of Cohen’s piece in the Times, which left out a discussion of black Hispanics altogether.

“The thing I found most fascinating about the NYT’s piece was this idea that Latinos with light skin were saying they were white on the census and the idea that the culture would go the way of the Irish, Italians and other immigrant groups… Just be white,” she said. “But where does that leave Latinos with brown skin? We were not even mentioned in the article. Are brown Latinos choosing just black? I don’t think so for many reason. I personally have always struggled with any form that makes me choose who I am, since I am more than one thing. But I enjoy the conversations, as race and identity, is a constantly evolving issue for me.”

The lesson learned from the current “white Latino debacle?” When talking about complicated issues like racial identity, news organizations should have a few of those identities on hand to inform the conversation.

 

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