The New York Times' 'Latinx' problem

The New York Times' 'Latinx' problem
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Last week, New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote about Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE’s use of the word “Latinx.” This is a non-gendered term for Latino that is popular among Hispanic Millennials, activists, and academics. But according to Douthat, a politician using the term risks coming across as “condescending, jargon-dependent, and well, rude” because it is “a word designed for ideological purposes.” Warren’s usage of “Latinx,” Douthat cautioned, is unwise because it sends a message that a vote for Democrats is a “vote for the new progressivism in full.”

Douthat’s column was illuminating, although not in the ways he intended. Not only does it show how little he understands the nuances of Hispanic identity, it highlights the Times’ lack of Latino columnists. It also reflects a movement among conservative writers to sow discord within the Latino community.

A relatively new word, “Latinx” is intended to be a more inclusive alternative to “Latino.” It encompasses men, women, and those who identify outside of the gender binary, such as transgender people. It is increasingly used in mainstream outlets like USA Today and the Washington Post, as well as in Hispanic media.

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Douthat asserts that Democrats shouldn’t be using “Latinx” because most Hispanics do not describe themselves that way. As evidence, he cites one survey that found that only 2 percent of Latinos favored this label. However, this poll had a margin of error of five percent, so the number of respondents preferring “Latinx” could actually be seven percent. The poll skewed towards Spanish-speakers and the foreign-born, which are generally the groups least likely to use this word. And most of its respondents were outside the 18-24 range, the group most likely to use “Latinx.” In short, Douthat drew conclusions based on a single, arguably flawed poll.

While there are robust discussions to be had about Latino identity and politics, Douthat is not the person for the job. In 2012, he opined that Democrats are winning with Hispanics because “(recent) immigrants often aren’t assimilating successfully — or worse, are assimilating downward, thanks to rising out-of-wedlock birthrates and high dropout rates.” The Democratic edge with Latinos, he wrote, “depends heavily on these darker trends.” This column drew a rebuke from the leader of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who criticized it as a “rambling” misunderstanding of Latinos.

More recently, Douthat has urged Democrats to work with Stephen Miller on immigration. He has suggested that mass immigration reduces social cohesion and civic trust, and once wrote an entire column about how much he missed the heyday of the WASPs — that is, the days before women and people of color were allowed to equally participate in society.

Despite such views — and his lack of any meaningful connection or credibility with the Latino community — Douthat was afforded space on the Times Opinion page to write about Latinos for the Times’ 4.9 million subscribers. That may be because the Times does not have any Latinos as regular opinion columnists. Times readers can enjoy Charles M. Blow, Frank Bruni, and Michelle Goldberg offering their take on issues related to race, LGBTQ issues, and gender, respectively, yet there is no writer consistently representing the viewpoints of the country’s 60 million Hispanics.

It would be unthinkable if the Times did not have African American or female columnists, but its lack of Latinos in 2019 is simply the status quo. Although the Times has contributing Latino writers, their work appears sporadically — while Douthat gets two columns a week.

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Moreover, Douthat is squandering his immense platform. His Times bio describes his beat as “politics, religion, moral values, and higher education.” Douthat could be writing on broad range of important topics. If he cared about Latinos, he could shine a light on hate crimes or the ongoing horror of family separations. Instead he chose to focus on one word used by Elizabeth Warren in her political outreach. Talk about thinking small.

Douthat’s column seems to be part of a broader effort by conservative writers to denigrate the term “Latinx.” By emphasizing that the word does not resonate with all Latinos, they likely hope to promote disunity among Hispanics. How cynical that conservatives are taking a word designed to encourage inclusivity and using it to stir up division. Still, no amount of spin can distract attention from the fact that we are living under the most anti-Latino, xenophobic president in modern history.

Yes, “Latinx” is a term that is both embraced and scorned by Latinos — so wouldn’t it be nice to have actual Latinos weigh in on this topic? That would be an improvement over intellectually lazy writing based on dubious data.

Douthat’s “Latinx” column illustrates why the Times needs a regular Hispanic opinion writer. By not elevating authentic Latino voices, the Times does a disservice to its readers in general and to Hispanics in particular.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.  A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.