Tom Brokaw is sorry, and with fair reason: He got caught saying something racist on TV. The former NBC Nightly News anchor dedicated the closing minutes of his Sunday guest spot on Meet the Press to “the Hispanics,” and their purported refusal to assimilate into American culture. In his view, “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.”
The other side in Brokaw’s “both sides” formulation is composed of racists wary of intermarriage and unsure, in Brokaw’s words, if they “want brown grandbabies.” “It’s the intermarriage that is going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other,” Brokaw said, by way of explaining the drivers of interracial hostility. That a venerated newsman considers people who fit this description worth appeasing at all indicates poor grounds for debate — their stance is predicated on a belief in Hispanic inferiority, after all. But neither is his claim rooted in reality: Not only do a majority of Hispanics in the U.S. speak English — 62 percent are bilingual, according to the Pew Research Center — they do so at higher rates with each subsequent generation. Seventy-six percent of Hispanics age 18 to 33 and 88 percent age 5 to 17 either “speak English very well” or “speak only English,” while almost all agree — at 95 percent — that it is important for future generations to do so. Brokaw’s insistence that Hispanic children learn the language not only ignores that doing so is a defining feature of Hispanic life already — it ignores that it is an ideal valorized by almost the entire population.
Not letting facts derail xenophobia is en vogue in the United States. Candidate Trump’s entire immigration platform was predicated on false claims that Muslim terrorists were pouring into the U.S. disguised as refugees from Syria and undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants had precipitated a blood-soaked crime wave — when, in fact, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit crimes at lower rates than natural-born U.S. citizens, and not a single person who entered the U.S. as a Syrian refugee has since committed an act of terrorism. But rather than be rebuked for his lies, Trump was awarded the presidency amid chants of, “Build that wall!” filling his rally arenas. This was no coincidence: The issues identified as the most important by people who voted Republican in 2016 were, in order, immigration and terrorism, according to New York Times exit polls.
But while xenophobia can be rightly described as the heartbeat of Trump’s election, it is not the province of him and his acolytes alone. Brokaw — a vocal Trump critic — has burnished his liberal bona fides through pursuits like inveighing against the “jihad” that Fox News is waging on government institutions through the feedback loop of confirmation bias it lavishes on the president. Yet his tepid apology following Sunday’s comments — since expanded to highlight a career spent covering Cesar Chavez and emphasize his core belief that “diversity … is what makes America” — contained no suggestion that he actually disbelieved what he had said about Hispanics. Nor should this be a surprise: Brokaw and Fox News pundits are far from the only Americans who believe that immigrants who fail to assimilate threaten some idealized notion of national unity. According to Gallup, 72 percent of the population thinks it is “essential” that immigrants to the United States learn English. Brokaw’s apology is more likely a response to the near-immediate backlash he faced than an admission he said anything incorrect.
Yet perhaps the greatest irony in his statement is its suggestion that Hispanics are responsible for disunity in the first place. Racial segregation is among the defining legacies of white America’s relationship with nonwhites, and the impulse to maintain it has consistently superseded whatever similarities united those on either end of its divide, including language. And though black people were its primary targets, they were not its only victims. Supreme Court–mandated desegregation orders aimed at integrating Mexican-Americans in California and Texas preceded Brown v. Board of Education. The reasoning used by racists to justify its continuation was as specious as Brokaw’s. “Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability, and in their economic outlook,” one Orange County, California, school superintendent asserted at the time.
Nor is such segregation a relic of the past. Three-quarters of white people today do not have a single nonwhite friend, according to the Washington Post. Residential segregation persists for Hispanics as an enduring legacy of both past redlining and current home-loan practices. According to data compiled by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, school segregation for Latino children is worse even than for black children in many regions of the country. None of this is accidental. Even for Spanish-speaking Hispanics who wish to assimilate and learn English faster than they already are, barriers to doing so, usually erected by white people, abound across American society. Brokaw may want a country where Hispanics assimilate faster. But even by his own standards, Hispanics are not the problem.