A Lesson in Discrimination

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Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, by Linda Chavez, New York: Basic Books, 209 pages, $22.95

Hispanics in America insist on speaking only Spanish and want their children taught exclusively in Spanish. Unlike all previous immigrant groups, they won't assimilate. They drop out of school. They live in abject and perpetual poverty.

So believe vast numbers of Americans. The believers include most "Anglos" (Americans of white European backgrounds), most blacks, and many self-styled Hispanic leaders, who run organizations few Hispanics have heard of.

One American, however, knows better. She is Linda Chavez, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a former executive director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Maryland in 1986, and former editor of the award-winning magazine American Educator. In Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, Chavez refutes the widely held perception that Hispanics can't make it without government assistance.

Chavez's book busts many politically correct myths about Hispanics. For example, in a chapter on bilingual education, she notes: "In several classrooms, I observed very young Hispanic children working together at their tables speaking English among themselves as their teachers gave directions in Spanish." Chavez's observations are intended to ruffle feathers, but she backs up her points with careful documentation; the book is profusely footnoted.

Chavez's scholarly approach distinguishes her from her detractors. Out of the Barrio has prompted a wide-ranging attack by Mexican-Americans and New York Puerto Ricans in op-ed pieces, in magazine articles, and on talk shows. Almost without exception, these anti-Chavez diatribes have three things in common: First, they are written by people associated with the 1960s War on Poverty or by their students. Second, they do not quote from Out of the Barrio or counter Chavez's evidence with other data. Third, Chavez's critics tend to attack her personally.

Chavez's detractors dislike her as one of the highest ranking women in the Reagan administration. They also vilify her because she briefly served as the paid president of an organization called U.S. English. (To her credit, she resigned that position when racist memos written by its founder surfaced.) But their main problem with her is that she dares to buck the Hispanic establishment.

It was Chavez's stint as executive director of the civil rights commission that opened her eyes to the influence of Hispanic groups that have a strong presence in Washington and the media. Unfortunately for Hispanics, the power and money behind these pressure groups are not Hispanic. They are white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and liberal.

In 1968, Chavez writes, a Ford Foundation study concluded that Mexican-Americans were, in contrast to the black community, "disorganized and fragmented," and in need of a national organization to serve their political and social interests. Toward that end, the foundation helped organize the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), patterned after the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, and the Southwest Council of La Raza, which later became the National Council of La Raza. Using annual reports and IRS filings, Chavez tracks Ford Foundation contributions of $9.6 million to the National Council of La Raza and $14.2 million to MALDEF since 1968.

Thus, Chavez notes, liberal WASP money created an artificial Hispanic leadership in an attempt to duplicate the black organizations that had been instrumental in the civil rights revolution of the '60s. She points out the fallacy of such imitation: Hispanics have never faced the de jure segregation in education, housing, and politics that blacks have. Nor do Hispanics have a historical background of slavery or of coming to these shores in chains. Moreover, dating from the 16th century in New Mexico, Hispanics have had their own economic, religious, and civic institutions.

The Hispanic pressure groups do not command the loyalty of their supposed constituents. "Few Mexican Americans could name the leader of even one of the major Mexican American policy groups—or perhaps the names of the groups themselves," Chavez declares. "These groups consider themselves to be on the cutting edge of social change, but the future they envision for Hispanics is one in which Hispanics attain permanent entitlement status based on ethnicity."

The quest for entitlements is based on an image of poverty and oppression that is at odds with reality. The most significant chapter in Out of the Barrio is titled "An Emerging Middle Class." It opens with a quote from one of the leaders appointed by the Ford Foundation: "We [Hispanics] became the poorest of the poor, the most segregated minority in schools, the lowest paid group in America and the least educated minority in the nation." Chavez writes, "This perception has not changed substantially in twenty-five years. And it is wrong."

Chavez rightly distinguishes among Mexican-Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and immigrants from Central and South America—distinctions that most Hispanic "leaders" and their media allies fail to recognize. For example, less than a quarter of Mexican-Americans live below the poverty line, in contrast to 33 percent of Puerto Ricans and only 10 percent of Cubans. Furthermore, Cuban refugees by 1980 included 200 millionaires; there were 18,000 Cuban-owned businesses—concentrated in Florida but located throughout the United States. No immigrant group in history has accomplished as much or assimilated as quickly as these Cubans, many of whom came by rowboats and rafts across 90 miles of water, facing death with every wave and gust of wind.

Most Cuban-Americans are immigrants. By contrast, Mexican-Americans (65 percent of all Hispanics) are mostly native born (66 percent of them), as are all Puerto Ricans. If poverty is a problem, it is in these groups. Chavez devotes a separate chapter to the Puerto Ricans, in which she examines the economic and social degradation of the welfare-savvy New York Puerto Rican community and contrasts it with other Puerto Rican communities in the Northeast that are mostly prosperous.

She writes, "The illegitimacy rate for Puerto Rican babies inches up each year and is now over 50 percent. In 1960, 85 percent of all Puerto Rican males worked; three decades later, only 69 percent were in the labor force. Puerto Rican women swell the welfare rolls of New York City; and many are second generation welfare recipients. Almost half of these women have never held a job." Puerto Ricans, Chavez tells us, are well-versed in welfare systems: "About 70 percent of all persons living in Puerto Rico receive some form of government assistance; more than 50 percent qualify for food stamps."

Welfare, big government as El Patron, has wreaked havoc with this one segment of the Hispanic community. But the media and special-interest power brokers have convinced the country that all Hispanics share the welfare disease and the poverty that causes it. Not true, Chavez writes: In Los Angeles, where more than one-third of the population is Hispanic, native-born Mexican-Americans account for only 10 percent of welfare payments. Yet they represent 65 percent of all Hispanics. Recent Hispanic immigrants—who like most immigrants need time to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder—draw 42 percent of local welfare payments.

Linda Chavez can tell the difference between immigrant and native-born Hispanics. If the media and policy makers could also make such important distinctions, Hispanic progress would be recognized for what it is—steady for most and spectacular for those who take advantage of educational and economic opportunities. "Ultimately," Chavez writes, "it will be up to individuals to take advantage of those opportunities."

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a syndicated columnist living in San Diego.

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