By Ellen McGirt
January 29, 2019

Part of the problem is that it was Tom Brokaw.

“I grew up with him. He’s like the holy trinity of news anchors,” says Julio Ricardo Varela, co-host of the In The Thick podcast and founder of Latino Rebels, both part of the nonprofit Futuro Media. “And his data points weren’t correct. It was a punch to the gut.”

Varela is talking about the mess Brokaw made recently on NBC’s Meet The Press, after a series of hurtful, racist, and inaccurate off-the-cuff remarks about Hispanics in the U.S. caused a public uproar.

Here’s what Brokaw said during a panel discussion of President Donald Trump’s border wall fight, and the recently lifted government shutdown:

I also happen to believe that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation. That’s one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time. You know, they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities. And that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.

Brokaw also said he has heard from people, after pushing “a little harder,” that they don’t know whether they “want brown grand-babies,” and about “the intermarriage that is going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other.”

All of this comes at a time when misinformation and outright lies about Hispanic people are public fodder, often coming from the highest office in the land. The award-winning NBC anchor later apologized in a series of wrenching tweets.

Now, there’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with the facts: What Brokaw asserted isn’t true.

Data from Pew Research shows that the share of Hispanic people speaking Spanish at home has been dropping steadily. Now, some 62% are bilingual. This report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that Hispanics are learning English faster than other immigrant cohorts. Other research shows that Hispanic high school dropout rates have hit a new low, college enrollment is at a new high, and they’re starting businesses in greater numbers—more on that below.

Now, nearly all Latinx who are the grandchildren of immigrants speak fluent English; and barely a quarter know enough Spanish to consider themselves bilingual.

That Brokaw seems to have absorbed this misinformation is a potent reminder of how persistent and damaging these talking points are.

Karla Monterroso, the CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit devoted to diversifying the tech sector (and Fortune MPW Next Gen star) responded to Brokaw’s remarks with a thoughtful series of tweets explaining how the pressure to assimilate forces people to make impossible choices.

“Sincerely the most annoying part of this is… how readily we shed Latinx identity in order to assimilate,” she says. “Colonization grounds assimilation as a success strategy in a way that has second-generation Latinx people claiming whiteness.”

Young technologists are choosing to enter a cultural closet to be successful, she says. But if you can’t be your whole self at work, then it’s not diversity, is it?

“Quite literally folks hide their identities when they can so they can be successful,” she tweeted. “I had one engineer tell me he pretended to be South Asian for as long as he could because of the assumptions made about Latinx people…This is not a healthy way to be in the world.”

Varela points out that because it was NBC treasure Tom Brokaw who got assimilation wrong, it’s made a difficult conversation much worse.

“It was Tom friggin’ Brokaw!” he says. Brokaw is one of three key white male anchors, along with CBS’s Dan Rather and ABC’s Peter Jennings, who shaped the news for decades. From the Challenger explosion to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Brokaw was a trusted voice inside our heads.

“Now we’re getting hate mail defending him: ‘Go back home you illegals,’ that sort of thing,” he says. Mainstream news-watchers who may or not be worried about brown grand-babies and white supremacists are united on the matter. “It’s a weird alliance of white male hubris.” (Just as an aside, Brokaw’s home state of South Dakota has seen the fastest growth in Hispanic population since 2000.)

Varela says it’s time to seize the moment. “Look, assimilation is always been the code word for white America—this is an opportunity to understand that, for one thing, the Latino community is going through its own civil rights movement.”

This is where diversity in leadership, on teams and yes, in newsrooms, really matter. You can’t seize the moment if you can’t see it.

The only person on the panel who felt prepared to speak truth on-air to the news elder was Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for PBS News Hour.

“I would just say that we also need to adjust what we think of as America,” she told the panel, talking about growing up in Miami around Hispanic families. “And the idea that we think Americans can only speak English, as if Spanish and other languages wasn’t always part of America, is, in some ways, troubling.”

That was a learning moment, says Varela.

“She modeled the way to have the conversation,” he said. “Anyone can be ‘the Yamiche’ at their jobs.” But, he says, when people do speak up, others need to acknowledge the risk they took. “It’s important to let them know that they’re not alone.”

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