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When Taking the Easy Way Out in Racial Labeling, the Truth Suffers


When a close friend recently failed to show up after a jog, we did what most people would do. We called the police.

The cops asked reasonable questions, trying to compile a physical description, such as "What was he wearing?" or "Does he have any tattoos or other identifying marks?"

But then they asked the nation's most common ignorant question: "Is he white, black or Hispanic?"

How do you explain to a cop that the term "Hispanic" was invented in the 1970s by the U.S. Census Bureau? How do you tell a cop that even the Census Bureau states "Hispanics" may be of any race?

In other words, if we exist at all, we come in all colors.

Still, I knew what the cops meant. They meant cinnamon brown with a Spanish surname.

If only life were that simple.

The police aren't alone in this false assumption. This newspaper often makes the assumption that all Hispanics (we use the word "Latinos") are cinnamon-brown mestizos (a person of European and indigenous American heritage). Our policy states, as does the Census Bureau, that "Latinos may be of any race."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 22, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Word's origin--A column published in the Southern California Living section Aug. 14 stated that the term "Hispanic" was "invented in the 1970s by the U.S. Census Bureau." In fact, the use of the term has been documented by the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as the 16th Century.

Even so, since 1997, we've published the following phrase 87 times: "described as a Latino." That number is dwarfed by the hundreds of other ways we write that Latinos are a separate race from blacks, whites, Asians and Native Americans (". . .the shooting raised tensions between blacks and Latinos. . .") when in fact there are Latinos who fit all those categories.

I've raised this issue endlessly with my colleagues and bosses, and most people understand: Latinos come in all colors. They know about Sammy Sosa, who is a black Latino. They know about Christina Aguilera, a white, blue-eyed Latina. They know about Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, a Latin American of Japanese heritage. They know about Cesar Chavez, a mestizo. They know all this, and yet they cannot seem to handle its implication: that "Latino" is so broad as to be irrelevant, and that its common application to just one group--brown mestizos--is false.

I've been told many times that for The Times to change the way we write about Latinos would "confuse" or "offend" people. This baffles me. Since when have newspapers shied away from telling the truth because it would confuse people?

I've also been told we continue to use "Latino" as a synonym for mestizo because most "Latinos" in Los Angeles believe that's what it means too.

To that I say: Ignorance comes in many shades.

We love to label people in this country. We do it without thinking, or asking why--mostly, I think, because it makes stereotyping and generalizations easier.

One of those labels is the notion of a "Latino" race, a notion that flies in the face of the history that brought us all here, to North, Central and South America. We are, all of us in the Americas, linked by a shared history. And that history goes a little something like this:

A bunch of people walk across the Bering Strait from what is now China to what is now Alaska, some 20,000 years ago.

Some stay in what is now Alaska, and their descendants in 2000 go by tribal names such as Chitina, Kwinhagak, Akhiok and Qawalangin.

Others keep walking. They make homes from what is now Canada to the southern tip of what is now Chile. Some live in pueblos and farm corn. Others are nomads. Some make homes in the Amazon jungle. Some build pyramids near what is now Nashville. Some build pyramids near what is now Cancun. Some don't build pyramids. Some build boats and move to what is now Puerto Rico. Some build boats and move to what is now Haiti. Some move to the Andes. None speak English, or Spanish. None are Latinos.

Some are nice and peaceful, some are violent and horrible.

Chapter Two: Bunch of Europeans jump in boats, fool themselves (and many generations to follow) that they have "discovered" these continents.

Some Europeans are nice and peaceful, some are violent and horrible. They intentionally and unintentionally kill so many indigenous inhabitants that in some nations they later decide to import humans from West Africa to be their slaves.

Yoruba, Congolese, Bantu and many other ethnic Africans are chained and forced to come to these continents, from what is now Canada to what is now Chile. Some slave owners speak English. Some speak Spanish. Some speak Portuguese. Some speak French. None calls himself a Latino.

Ninety-five percent of the Africans end up in what is now Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where millions and millions of their descendants still live. Many go to the Caribbean coast of what is now Mexico. Some go to what is now the United States.

Chapter Three: Immigrants from all over the world begin to go to places like Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Baltimore and Caracas, looking for a better life, including many white people who had been indentured servants in places like Ireland and Russia.

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