Should We Listen to Voices of Color or to Progressive Activists?

by Jay Jeffers

___

Despite what many mainstream progressives would like to believe, the term “Latinx” has increased significantly in use over the last several years. While it seemed a good guess that most U.S. Hispanics would reject the term, actual data has not been readily available. Research has been ongoing, however, and some of the returns are coming in from upstate, so to speak. A recent survey has shown that only 2% of Hispanics who are registered to vote use the term, and upwards of 40% are offended by it, to one degree or another. Other research finds that only one-in-four Hispanics have even heard the term, so their reaction to seeing it employed remains to be seen. ‘Latinx’, of course, is the term meant to be more gender and non-binary inclusive than ‘Latino’ or ‘Latina’ (‘Latinx’ can currently be pronounced either la-TEEN-ex or Latin-X). Even as the gender inclusive term isn’t widely used among Hispanics, it has caught on in many liberal spaces, though the aforementioned data has sent progressives into incantations of dismissal and denial, led by Jamelle Bouie in The New York Times.

Rather than trying to reconcile the growing use of ‘Latinx’ with the data showing that Hispanics don’t use the term themselves, Bouie says the focus should be on “social and economic transformations that shape life for most Americans,” and that our “constant battles over language are more distracting than not,” taking great care to avoid the possibility that widening use of the term hurts liberals politically. Bouie’s implicit stance was quickly made explicit on Twitter, with the view expressed that the term doesn’t have an important use as much as that its use is spurred by the loud complaints of conservatives, an idea already circling among progressives.

If Bouie and Co. are right, it would allow progressives who would otherwise be disturbed by the existence of several key realities to avoid discomfort. Those realities are the fact that so many Hispanics aren’t comfortable with the term or don’t use it themselves, combined with political proximity to those who do use the term, and finally confronted with the strong advice from progressives to listen to people of color. What progressives need psychologically is a path that goes right around those obstacles of cognitive dissonance and leaves them behind, and that’s what Bouie skillfully provides.

I have a different perception of hearing the term in that I don’t think it’s mostly just conservatives grousing about it. In either case, a casual check on whether prominent liberal institutions and actors use the term should be informative. Consistent with my impression, some quick googling shows that those who have approvingly used ‘Latinx’ includes NPR, Elizabeth Warren, the Anti-Defamation League, the University of Pennsylvania, the United Methodist Church, the ACLU, The New Yorker, the Berkely Public School District, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Columbia University Law School, the Presbyterian Church USA, the American Medical Association, the University of California at Davis, Thomson Reuters media, Virginia Tech publishing, the Los Angeles Times, and Meta (otherwise known as Facebook). That’s just a cursory look, and all stemming from the term circling in chat rooms in the early 2000’s, then only a specialized bit of online vernacular, picked up by activists, academics, and journalists to eventually work its way into this very debate.

As a lifelong liberal, I’m familiar with the American conservative tendency to paint with such a broad brush that Barack Obama is described as a communist and John Kerry as a disloyal Navy man. Any marginal association or intimation can be magnified and blown out of proportion. But as a lifelong liberal, I also remember a time when liberal discourse had more room for nuance. A phenomenon can stop well short of complete overlap with liberalism while still crossing some threshold of importance, but this isn’t something progressive discourse is capable of acknowledging of late. There are likely many reasons for this, but one is a lack of willingness among progressive liberals themselves.

Democrats, of course, would like to make larger inroads with Hispanic voters. Acknowledging the reality that ‘Latinx’ isn’t emerging from the mouth of every liberal and Democrat in the country, while still acknowledging the potential problem the term poses, isn’t difficult. There is no contradiction. Granted, there might be social pressure to elide the political risk the term poses, but there is no intellectual pressure to make this denial. Just because uncool centrists and conservatives don’t like the word, doesn’t mean worries over the word are unfounded. Perhaps ‘Latinx’ will be damaging on its own, or perhaps it’s a canary in the coal mine. If Facebook, the ACLU and the rest decided to use the term so freely, what else is being done in conjunction with the mindset that led to this important use? Is there a way to find out, so we don’t thoughtlessly do this kind of thing again?

In keeping with the progressive mood nowadays, Bouie isn’t interested in these kinds of questions. In fact, he declares that “language does not actually structure politics,” an incredibly substantive and sweeping statement that treats language as a neutral medium, neatly cordoned off from ideology itself, and any particular focus on language a distraction from real issues. But it’s worse than that, because (and apparently this actually needs to be said) in order for ‘Latinx’ to have made it this far into the discourse in the first place, someone had to focus intently on language as a central concern. This focus was not from the fuddy-duddy centrists and conservatives Bouie brushes aside, but from more radical liberals Bouie wants us to ignore – these are not the droids you’re looking for.

In any case, it raises the question of where this episode leaves the progressive advice to listen to people of color, because if you listen to people of color in this instance you would at the very least have serious doubts about the wisdom of using ‘Latinx’ in common parlance. Of course, the instruction to listen to voices of color could in theory just be the sensible advice to make sure people of color have a say in the conversation and a seat at the table, but not necessarily a specialized take on every issue of race and identity, as if voices of color are a monolith (to suggest that people of color form an ideological monolith would have itself counted as an example of racism not very long ago). The problem with that solution is that merely including diverse voices was already an agreed-upon standard in legacy and old-school liberalism, an outlook that’s being scooched aside in elite spaces by more progressive and radical ways of communicating. The sensible (and philosophically weak) advice to include diverse voices has grown into a more mechanical (and philosophically strong) direction to consult specialized, even standpoint knowledge from people of color that happens to coincide with the political beliefs of white progressives, except when it doesn’t.

Bouie strikes a different chord, saying material issues need more central focus, but ironically this is where much of the concern over the term comes from in the first place. If the term were truly marginal, he would have a point, but as it stands, the concern that a hyper-focus on language comes at the expense of materiality is preceded by that exact concern coming from old school liberals as well as from some on the socialist and socially democratic left. If elite and institutional uses of ‘Latinx’ aren’t actually marginal, (and the examples above suggest that they are not), then Bouie picks up the materiality consideration, flips it, and sets it down exactly backwards. Focusing on materiality would have meant leaving ‘Latinx’ to online chat rooms rather than trying to distract everyone’s attention after it had far outgrown the chat rooms.

Bouie’s treatment could still turn out to be the right medicine, politically. That is, if it becomes more obvious that the wider adoption of ‘Latinx’ was a bad idea, perhaps sweeping it under the rug is the only way for progressives to proceed. But it’s clear that this kind of evasion is unhelpful, intellectually speaking. The question of whether to listen to academics and activists or to people of color, is of course not inherently either/or. It’s just that we now find ourselves in just such a dilemma in this case and the progressive response has been to run interference and minimize.

There’s something deeply unsatisfying about this kind of intellectual dodge, similar to the Times Editorial Board’s clear desire to endorse the progressive favorite Elizabeth Warren for president, only to water it down with a highly unusual dual endorsement of Warren and the more moderate Amy Klobuchar. The advice to listen to people of color was ignored there too, as the old-world candidate Joe Biden had the support of most black voters throughout the primary process, illustrated poignantly by an encounter between Biden and Jacquelyn Brittany in the elevator of the NY Times building on the day of Biden’s meeting with the board. Brittany is African American, is a security guard at the building, and as she enthusiastically stated in a video that went viral during the primary season, an unabashed fan of Joe Biden.

Perhaps radical and progressive liberals would explain away these political inconveniences by saying that many people of color are suffering from false (or in this case white) consciousness or are otherwise misinformed. But these kinds of abstract considerations are exactly what the mechanical directives to listen to voices of color were meant to forestall. If ideological or philosophical considerations can be appended ad hoc to simplistic directives to listen to people of color, all to make an end run around the more painstaking process of having conversations and giving reasons, then those ideological or philosophical considerations can instead be given in the course of conversations, to stand or fall on their own. In other words, progressive or not, we would all have to be satisfied with offering our own arguments without making rigid demands that function as rhetorical overrides, especially if progressives aren’t going to follow their own oversimplified advice.

Bouie stiff arms the possibility that the use of ‘Latinx’ has already caused harm to Democrats with Hispanic voters, (Donald Trump famously exceeded expectations with Hispanic voters in 2020). He points to what he sees as separate ideological realities as more important to enabling Trump’s performance, such as religious, masculine, and entrepreneurial dispositions that exist not only among white populations, but also among Latinos, and particularly among Hispanic men. But it’s not difficult to consider how Elizabeth Warren proclaiming the rights of “Latinx people” would go over amid those forces. It’s true that we don’t know for sure why the efforts of Democrats have stalled with Hispanics, but Bouie selectively helps himself to one kind of informed speculation while attempting to disallow another, highly related kind. That is, he embraces speculation that ideology is causal but swats away that idea that issues of language can matter when it’s clear that these elements are intertwined in important ways.

It wouldn’t have taken much imagination to have correctly surmised at the outset how the term would go over with a people culturally interwoven with a language that is already suffused with gender as a category. Not only are the categories of women and men gendered in Spanish, but one cannot correctly refer to tables, dogs, or politics unless the gender is correct. That this time-honored state of linguistic affairs could endure in the present while a stylistically Anglicized, self-consciously non-gendered word (as opposed to simply using something like “Latin,” for example) could replace the already widely disseminated terms that refer to this entire people is I suppose possible, strictly speaking. But that’s a far cry from it ever going over well, without significant collateral damage, without consulting the voices of the people to whom the term refers, by intellectual and cultural fiat, all while giving the strong and pat instruction to listen to voices of color.

In any case, even so, of course language can change, and the process of change is sometimes a blunderbuss rather than a graceful glide. Perhaps there will come a day when the vast majority of Hispanics will gladly refer to themselves as ‘Latinx’, as difficult as that is to imagine now. It’s certainly not for any one person to decide. Looking behind the curtain Bouie and his allies have put up reveals not only other progressives making use of ‘Latinx’ but radical liberals sincerely hoping to advance the term. That these relatively radical actors are sincere and open makes them worthy of a measure of gratitude beyond that garnered by evasive progressives. But to their hopes, I can only meet them half-way. In my Texas town, there is a gas station that serves as the proverbial Home Depot parking lot where Hispanic men wait by the road for work. Inside the gas station, Hispanic women greet you at the cash register. Elderly people and children can occasionally be seen in the yards of the Hispanic neighborhood very close by, all together forming an ecosystem with its own routines and expectations. Sometimes when nearby, I stop in to gas up and grab a snack. I can assure all readers that on the very day when I hear ‘Latinx’ used in these environs to refer to Latino people generally, then I will start using it too.

11 comments

  1. On the title question — we should listen to both, and then make our own decisions.

    On the main point, I see progressives as making a huge mistake here. They are wanting to make a major change in social traditions and conventions. And it’s okay for them to want that. But they cannot achieve that change by snapping their fingers and having public trantrums. To change social traditions really requires the consent of the population at large, and that takes time and careful grass roots work.

  2. It’s had to believe this has even rose to the level of an issue. Has there ever been an occasion or time in history when a name given to a population or ethnic group by an outside group has ever been gladly accepted and appreciatively used?

    Eskimos, Indians.
    Negros, colored, Black, African American. I don’t recall AAs confiding with or asking for advice or approval from white America what they should be called when it came to the latter two manifestations. I could only imagine the response if such blatant insensitive and offensive patronizing would be attempted now or ever. Completely unthinkable, yet, the idiocy of infantilizing the Hispanic people by those who know best how to christen their new demographic descriptor, without so much as a how do you do, seems like business as usual for those on the left who would coin new language to neutralize any and all hint of anything differing from an all encompassing neutral asexuality.

    Like Covid, Latinx (Latinks) wasn’t needed or asked for but is trying to spread and find host bodies in venues that probably could give two figs but feel compelled for reputation and profit to go along. It reminds me of the embarrassing attempts of celebrities or high school girls in movies who try to start a new catch phrase or word that never launches or has a miserable short half life.

  3. It’s a dumb, unidiomatic term. Most Spanish speakers don’t use it and haven’t even heard of it? Not surprised considering that it’s an academic term built primarily for Hispanic, gender-nonconforming people. Pretty small slice it’s aimed at. I don’t think it has life. You ignore the fact that Bouie says he doesn’t even use the word. Do I believe if we, the Left, banished this from our lexicon we would significantly improve our standing among Hispanics, a group the author grants most of whom haven’t heard the term? I doubt it. I think Bouie’s more correct in that our losses among that demographic have deeper reasons than this lexical argument largely played out among elites. I bet appeals to socialism, self-reliance, and the American dream played a much larger role. We can quibble over these forever, and say “these come from ideology, not material conditions”, but I’m not particularly invested in that dispute. Yeah, fine, let’s cast the term off. It’s probably too late. Sorry, this may be too high level and American democracy will be ending for other reasons. When the republic ends you can tell yourself you wrote an essay about “Latinx” and I can tell myself I wrote a comment about this essay. We can take comfort in that.

    1. Haha yes, I’m not holding my breath that what I’ve said (or what you’ve said about what I said) will stave off whatever’s coming for us as a country. Then again, that puts us in the same the relatively futile position of the vast majority of people now living and who have ever lived. My version of the wild orchids (via Rorty’s famous piece) is the intersection of philosophy, culture, and politics. So, as they say, what are ya goona do? What I’ll do, more for the sake of this conversation than for the world, is offer a few replies:

      *The term may have originally been aimed at gender non-conforming Hispanic people, but it certainly hasn’t kept that narrow reference as its gained wider use. The vast majority of the uses one hears in the wild (and I cited a few more formal uses) function as a replacement or synonym for Latino or Latina. The fact that the vast majority of Hispanics do not use the term goes a lot further than that they simply lack a special term for gender non-conforming Hispanics.

      *On the topic of marginality, it’s true that it lacks frequency among Hispanics, and the percentage of uses of the term next to Latino or Latina is almost certainly very small, even in the wider American context. But what if there is another sense of what makes something marginal or important? That is, what if the term were used by highly visible people and historically venerable institutions, and/or in settings that many people could notice and easily assign as a habit of one political side as opposed to another?

      In other words, I do not see the term as marginal in all salient senses of marginal. Elizabeth Warren used it in a presidential primary debate watched by millions, and she was the progressive-liberal favorite. That and the other examples I dug up, which again didn’t take much digging. If one were having an honest conversation about the term, one of the handful of things they’d be sure to say is whether it was a good idea for it to gain the wide use (at least in the sense of “wide” I’ve cited) it has. You found it very easy to express your disapproval, for example.

      *I don’t ignore the fact that Bouie says he doesn’t use the term as much that I interpret it differently than you. He walks right up to then line of distancing himself without actually saying anything directly about the term, which as it happens also doesn’t raise the ire of radical liberals or progressives whose rhetoric leans radical. The first thing you said is that the term is dumb. Why can’t Bouie, in a whole NT Times article and/or in the course of a twitter fight, say what he thinks about the term’s wider use? I have a view on that that I expressed in my piece.

      1. Jay:

        “My version of the wild orchids (via Rorty’s famous piece) is the intersection of philosophy, culture, and politics. So, as they say, what are ya goona do?”

        Fair enough.

        “On the topic of marginality, it’s true that it lacks frequency among Hispanics, and the percentage of uses of the term next to Latino or Latina is almost certainly very small, even in the wider American context. But what if there is another sense of what makes something marginal or important? That is, what if the term were used by highly visible people and historically venerable institutions, and/or in settings that many people could notice and easily assign as a habit of one political side as opposed to another?”

        My point about lack of use and unfamiliarity among most Spanish speakers was more about voicing skepticism that it’s having a significant impact on their vote. The phenomenon you’re talking about where it’s bandied about by elites is real so, yeah, I don’t think your criticism is unmotivated or unjustified in that sense. You think they shouldn’t use it? OK.

        In Bouie’s piece, he grants that it can be alienating, appealing to the same survey you do. Which my takeaway after reading that is, alright, so probably not worth using it, and he makes no attempt to dissuade me. You think there’s some sort of gotcha here regarding listening to people of color, but it’s not clear to me that, that isn’t simply what he’s doing there. It’s not like he says they’re wrong, which the tone of your piece suggests. He just doesn’t buy that it’s a good explanation for why we’ve lost Hispanic voters and he thinks we have other material and ideological hurdles we should be considering. I don’t really get anything from your essay contesting their relative standing, so it kind of leaves the central question (what are the most significant factors driving this demographic’s vote?) up in the air. You suggest these can be intertwined with the term’s negative impact, but that can be just as well if the latter is still more epiphenomenon than not.

        I mean, I’m sure there were old school, white, union Democrats who didn’t like it when we started using the phrase “African American”. And maybe back in the day, Pat Buchanan would’ve chided us our losses among this demographic due to such “politically correct” pandering. But it’s probably safer to chalk our losses up to our having rolled over during the assault on unions in the eighties and largely ignoring them afterwards. Yes, this is one speculation looking down on another but sometimes that happens when you disagree on the importance of this or that phenomenon.

        1. Zac,

          I think there’s probably some background beliefs or assumptions that we differ on that would keep us going back and forth without much in the way of progress. It’s entirely too much to have squeezed into this piece, so I can only try to make my background belief in this area a bit clearer, as opposed to proving anything logically, or even making them persuasive in a forum like this. Something like that would take a lot more conversation and perhaps cups of coffee, and maybe what would happen instead is that you’d bring me around.

          Before I start, for the record, I do not know that ‘Latinx” is singularly responsible for the trouble Democrats have persuading Hispanic voters. I am not saying that it is. I also do not know if Hillary Clinton would have won in 2016 if she hadn’t referred to Trump voters as “deplorable,” but I know it was a bad idea, and gratuitously insulting to the hard hats (I know, she was clarifying even as she said it, but that doesn’t matter, re political advisability). The difference in my mind is that HRC’s comment was a simple mistake made off-the-cuff while Latinx has been years in the making and is not marginal among a certain important progressive set that apparently wants to win national elections. For example, if you and I both think the term is dumb, and Elizabeth Warren uses it without hesitation, and most progressive liberals wanted Elizabeth Warren to be the nominee for president, well, you can see where I’m going with this. That’s an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, and that I’m asserting Bouie doesn’t want to talk about.

          I don’t mean to single Bouie out too much here. He happens to have written the article I’m responding to, but there are others that come to mind. Christopher Hayes, some of the self-described neoliberal contingent, most of the Vox people (especially post-Matthew Yglesias), Jeet Heer, etc. I see this group as providing the kind of work that should be done by political operatives like James Carville, rather than by esteemed journalists, academics, writers, etc. That is, sweeping your own side’s problems under the rug, turning people’s attention to your opponent’s flaws rather than risk alienating anyone in your own coalition, and so forth.

          When I hear Carville, most of the time I roll my eyes, then laugh, then eventually nod in agreement. There are different values that take precedence depending on the nature of the discursive space, IMO. Jamelle Bouie is not James Carville.

          We might have a disconnect in that you don’t believe the group I’ve identified does this sort of thing, or you might disagree in that you think it’s fine for public intellectual types to be quasi-activist or operative types. In any case, I don’t think there’s much more for me to say for now. That I’ve said all this isn’t meant to be persuasive on its own, but I do think it at least makes my view coherent, even if cogency is left for another day. I do appreciate the back and forth, but I will have to hit pause for a bit, for the holidays and what not. I’ll check back in, but I would guess the thread will have petered out by then.

          Thanks again.

          1. One more quick thing.

            It might be good for me to clarify that I refer to Carville above when he’s in official campaign mode, not CNN advisor talking head mode (in the latter role his view is close to the one I’ve expressed here). He even wrote a book some years back where he revealed that if he’s in a policy or political debate with someone and he’s been brought around that his interlocutor is right, he never admits it, as a matter of course, tool of the trade, etc. That struck me as a little much, at least to admit openly, but then again, everyone knows he’s a hired gun in the first place, so whatever.

            And in 2024 when the GOP candidate starts harping on culture war stuff and Carville goes into Democratic operative mode and angrily blurts out in whatever his accent is “Oh Lawd poke me with a stick, folks ah out theya tryin’ to make ends meet and we’ve got these fools talkin’ bout all kinda conspiracies and what you can’t say in kindergarten class?!!” I’m going to nod in agreement with Carville. That’s Carville’s role. Bouie, Hayes, Heer, etc. have higher callings via the roles they fill, IMO.

            Again, that’s really just more in the way of laying my view out rather than persuading, since we seem to have a disconnect at some deeper level.

            Thank you for indulging my clarification.

          2. Appreciate the thoughtful, extended replies, Jeff. I’ll leave this as my final comment and you can finish things out after the holidays if you feel anything else is worth discussing.

            I didn’t think you thought Latinx was singularly responsible for electoral losses, so no need for either of us to break a sweat over that. Your point is well taken that he doesn’t give proper attention to the extent Latinx dovetails with his point that messages should heed the deeper political forces at play, though Latinx is more a fault in the medium strictly speaking.

            He thinks Democrats have deeper vulnerabilities among Hispanic communities to address, and he appeals to the work of a journalist and a historian of Hispanic origin who’ve covered these communities, so I don’t think it’s fair to say he’s about sweeping the party’s problems under the rug here, full-stop. I’m not sure where you see him shifting the discussion to the faults of his opponents or how he’s stepping out of the usual bounds of an opinion writer for the NYT either. Since when is it a novel thing for avowed members of the Democratic coalition to discuss party vulnerabilities in the Times Opinion section?

            You don’t like him throwing shade at its significance and not wanting to dilate on the subject as much as you do, which fair enough, but that’s a bog-standard disagreement about political priorities. I don’t feel as much a need for such ideological conformity that this editorial and Yglesias’ latest on the subject, which aren’t incredibly far apart anyway, are forced into lockstep. Suffice it to say, you’re getting a ton more think-pieces focusing on the faults of Latinx for Christmas than you will on what I think he rightly identifies as deeper vulnerabilities in the party, so maybe you can rest easy.

  4. Excellent piece.

    The more byzantine the intersections of Intersectionality get, the more these sorts of conflicts are going to arise. The more “marginalization” classifications one devises, the more opportunities there are going to be for interests to compete.

    Given that contemporary social justice activism is — and unlike traditional civil rights — entirely performative, a kind of “Oppression Voguing,” there is no chance that this sort of thing is going to stop anytime soon. It’s too easy and costs too little. And as it has a perfect counterpart on the political Right, where imbecile Trumpers would rather die of Covid than get vaccinated, so as to “Own the Libs” — Right wing anti-Vaxxerism is itself a brand of performative activism — we can look forward to it continuing to polarize and to radicalize our politics.

    I’ve often wished that the Trumpers and Social Justice types would depart for some desert island, where they can knife each other and leave the rest of us in peace, but that isn’t going to happen, so it is essential that the normal portion of the population strongly and persistently stand up to them both and tell them “No.”

Leave a Reply