10/16/2014 12:25 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

This Columnist Has No Idea What A Hispanic Is

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A California State professor is super confused about what a Hispanic is and wants you to be too.

Victor Davis Hanson, a classics professor at California State University at Fresno and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, spouted off about how difficult it is to define the term “Hispanic” in an article for The National Review published Thursday. Finding the terms Latino and Hispanic “inexact,” he urged the public to simply discard the categories, which he views as both “discriminatory” and “largely irrelevant in 21st-century America.”

It’s not uncommon for the question of Latino ethnic identity to trip people up. The U.S. Census has had trouble squeezing Latinos into a racial box that people are willing to check. The New York Times has also recently struggled to understand Hispanic racial identity.

Hanson’s argument is unique, however, for the depth of its confusion. He organizes his ideas around what he presumes are baffling questions, but in fact are easily answered.

The first of these questions is the most important. The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” encompass many different people from many different places. So, Hanson, writes:

What ties them together? Not necessarily appearance, their names, knowledge of Spanish, or proximity to their ancestral homelands.

Hanson is way off on a very simple point here. The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” refer to a multiracial ethnicity. Latinos can be of any race. The defining characteristic of a “Latino” is Latin American birth or ancestry. Similarly, the defining characteristic of a “Hispanic” is birth or ancestry from a Spanish-speaking country.

After having thoroughly confused himself, Hanson wanders off beyond the horizon with this thought experiment:

Last year, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a liberal who is of mixed Mexican and Spanish ancestry, claimed that Texas senator Ted Cruz, a conservative who is half-Cuban, should not “be defined as a Hispanic” because Cruz opposes comprehensive immigration reform.

But imagine if Richardson were conservative, had taken his mother’s name, and went by Bill Marquez, and if Cruz were liberal, also took his mother’s name, and went by Ted Wilson. Who would be the more authentic Hispanic/Latino?

The correct answer is that regardless of which surname they use, they are both “Hispanic/Latino” because of their ancestry. Case closed.

Part of Hanson’s problem is that he thinks that the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” refer to a race rather than an ethnicity. But as mentioned above, Latinos can be of any race. Anyone who’s traveled to any of the countries of Latin America knows it’s common to see a whole rainbow spectrum of white, brown and black people in the region.

Hanson flubs this point when he accuses The New York Times of making up the “absurd category” of “white Hispanic” for George Zimmerman. The Times didn’t invent this term, though the paper did misapply it to Zimmerman. The term refers to people of European descent who identify ethnically as Hispanic. There are white people in Latin America just like there are white people in the United States.

The professor then enters the realm of culture. “Is ethnic heritage certified by native-language fluency?” Hanson asks, citing the example of Texan-born Julian Castro, whose native language is English. Notwithstanding the goofy phrasing of the question, it’s clear that Hanson means Spanish-language fluency. The answer is no. To be considered a Latino, you just have to have Latin American ancestry.

It’s not really the complexities of Latino ethnic identity that bother Hanson, as he makes clear toward the end, where he wonders whether “ethnically pure” Central American migrant children will qualify for affirmative action. What really concerns him is that he feels ethnic labels are divisive.

That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that actual inequality is divisive. The label that defines a person's ethnicity is just a label. And despite what Hanson says, there’s nothing confusing or outmoded about the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Hanson is a professor Stanford, where he is, rather, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute. He is a professor at California State University, Fresno.



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