Seems like Americans need to get out more: A poll released this week by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions found that a significant minority of Americans (over 30%) essentially believe that “Latinos” and “illegal immigrants” are one and the same–in other words, they believe that more than half of Latinos living in America are undocumented. Needless to say, that is not the case.
It gets worse: While large majorities (over 75%) told pollsters that they considered American Latinos to be “family-oriented”, “hard-working”, and “honest”, other common phrases that non-Latinos associated with the Hispanic population included “welfare recipient” (51%), “less educated” (50%), and “refuse to learn English” (44%). That doesn’t sound like progress.
Why are so many Americans misinformed about their Latin neighbors? Our first guess was that many of the respondents simply don’t know very many people outside their own demographic, but NHMC CEO and president Alex Nogales got a little aggressive in his response, saying “The media is doing a disservice with coverage that is misleading the public about Latinos who live in the U.S.,” and claiming that such coverage promotes “hate speech and hate crimes.”
The poll’s methodology was slightly unorthodox: More than 3000 non-Latino Americans viewed a series of one-minute audio/video clips predetermined to offer either “positive” or “negative” depictions of Latinos and then asked for their general impressions of the Latin community. Unsurprisingly, participants who were exposed to even one “negative” clip were far more likely to make unflattering generalizations.
We understand the researchers’ point that media exposure greatly influences audience behavior and encourages stereotyping. Here’s the kicker: In a separate survey, an overwhelming majority (71%) of 900 non-Latino respondents told researchers that Latino characters in American films and TV shows are almost always depicted as “criminals or gang members” while a sad 5% recalled seeing Latinos cast as “doctors, nurses, judges or lawyers.” Sounds like the NHMC may be onto something.
Why the discouraging numbers? Like we said, Americans need to get out more. Only 12% of 40-to-69-year-olds participating in the survey reported “strong interactions with Hispanics” in their lives, but the number jumped to 55% among 18-39-year-olds. Demographics are changing quickly, and familiarity is the key to acceptance.
We should mention that some do not consider the National Hispanic Media Coalition to be a non-partisan organization. The NHMC has encouraged the FCC to monitor commercial talk radio for anti-Latino hate speech, and most of the hosts they target also happen to associate themselves with the political right.
Whatever one’s politics, one fact is clear: Far too many Americans associate being Latino with being an undocumented immigrant, among other negative generalizations. Large segments of the population retain a very simplistic view of an extremely complicated issue, and relations between Latinos and non-Latinos in this country will not improve significantly until that is no longer the case.
Fortunately, we see moves in the right direction. Call us crazy, but we do believe in America on this one.