raceAhead: Tom Brokaw Wants Hispanics to Assimilate

January 29, 2019, 9:06 PM UTC

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.”

On Point

The Trump administration is preventing aid from reaching Puerto RicoIt’s a double hit. First, the administration remains unwilling to sign off on supplemental funds that will keep food aid coming to the island’s poorest residents. Next, community development appropriations approved a year ago, still have not been dispersed. Part of the hang-up is the president’s unwillingness to budge from his idea that Puerto Rican politicos will use the aid to pay off their bond-related debt, which is not true. Then there's this: a new study shows that the response to the mainland after hurricanes Harvey and Irma in terms of money and staffing was faster and more generous than the response to Puerto Rico after Maria.Politico

Latinx entrepreneurs start companies at higher rates, yet struggle to get financing
Yes, bias is often to blame. This is just one insight from a new report from the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative (SLEI), which is part of the Stanford Business School.  The 2018 State of Latino Entrepreneurship shows the potential power of the Latinx cohort—their businesses are more likely to be tech companies, many are immigrant-founded, and have diverse funding streams. But just 28% of Latino business owners receive full funding, compared with 48% of their white peers. If the current spate of Latinx-owned companies grew at the same rate as non-Latinx ones, it could add 5.3 million new jobs and $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy. “But there’s a lot of unconscious racial bias—not intended, if you will, but a product of our socialization,” says the professor who launched SLEI.
Stanford Business School

Duke University administrator resigns from supervisory role after telling Chinese grad students to speak English
Megan Neely, an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics, emailed graduate students to speak English “100% of the time,” in professional settings on campus. The email created an uproar among students, which resulted in a petition to investigate, concerned that Duke faculty were threatening to punish students for speaking their native languages outside of the classroom. Neely said she’d been prompted by two professors who had complained to her that they heard students speaking Chinese in a student lounge, but she had sent a similar email before. Neely is stepping down from her role as director of graduate studies in biostatistics.
Chronicle of Higher Education

Ava DuVernay’s Array picks up a new documentary at Sundance
The film, “Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen,” is the story of Merata Mita, who became the first major indigenous woman filmmaker in New Zealand, and the first to write and direct a feature film. In addition to her breakthrough documentary work, she was a force for indigenous filmmakers around the world. Mita was from the Māori tribes of Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāi Te Rangi, and the documentary is directed by her youngest son, archivist Hepi Mita. Do yourself a favor and click through for the trailer.

On Background

Abigail Adams had some things to say about the slaves who built the White House
On November 28, 1800, Abigail Adams, wife of the second president of the U.S., posted a letter to one Cotton Tufts about her new life at the White House. It’s a painful read: "The effects of Slavery are visible everywhere, and I have amused myself from day to day in looking at the labour of 12 negroes from my window… it is true Republicanism that drive the slaves half fed and destitute of clothing, or fit…to labour, whilst the owner watches about idle.” It goes downhill from there.
National Archives

The legal history of race-based discrimination in America
When did white nationalist become offensive, asks Iowa’s Steve King? Turns out, pretty recently. Reading through the legal shenanigans, it’s amazing we’re doing as well as we are. Take the case of Marth Lum, the daughter of two Chinese immigrants who was expelled from her segregated Mississippi public school in 1923. Her family’s subsequent lawsuit forced the Supreme Court of Mississippi to explicitly define the purpose of segregation. It was not to prevent “race amalgamation” as the story went, because they were prepared to allow Lum to attend an all-black school. Instead, they conceded, the law addressed “the broad dominant purpose of preserving the purity and integrity of the white race.”
The New Yorker

My father, the YouTube star
Journalist and first-generation American Kevin Pang, weaves an emotional story of his turbulent relationship with his Chinese father, partially smoothed by their mutual love of food and authentic Cantonese cuisine. When he discovers that his now elderly parents have a secret online life as chefs, the story becomes even more poignant. Bring an appetite and tissues.
New York Times


We've been through a lot together through dark days and nights and seasons of hope and joy. Whatever the story, I had only one objective, to get it right. When I failed, it was personally painful, and there was no greater urgency than course correction. On those occasions, I was grateful for your forbearance and always mindful that your patience and attention didn't come with a lifetime warranty. I was not alone here, of course. I am simply the most conspicuous part of a large, thoroughly dedicated and professional staff that extends from just beyond these cameras, across the country, and around the world. In too many instances, in places of grave danger and personal hardship and they're family to me. What have I learned here? More than we have time to recount this evening, but the enduring lessons through the decades are these: it's not the questions that get us in trouble, it's the answers. And just as important, no one person has all the answers.
—Tom Brokaw, signing off as Nightly News anchor

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board