Young Latino Realities

There is something perverse in human nature that glories in and feasts on disaster, lingers on negativity. We focus on sensational news, not good news. The more bizarre, the better. Most of us are guilty. Even if we only glance fleetingly at tabloids at supermarkets, our eyes do indeed drift over.

Maybe we are hardwired to focus on bad news. Maybe it is a learned reaction back to the days when our ancestors had to be constantly on the alert for predators lingering around a bend. Those who sensed danger and took appropriate action lived another day to mix their genes with other equally attuned persons. And here we are!

We are descendents of clever and adroit early humans ever on the lookout for problems. So the tendency to be on the lookout for bad news is well ingrained in all of us.

Young Hispanics are no different. To be sure, they have reasons to be concerned, even pessimistic. Much is yet to be achieved in our world to assure a level playing field for all. I assume that young Hispanics are influenced by the “bad news” they encounter daily.

Of course they are. So I was pleased to read the blazing headline “Latino Youth Remain Hopeful for a Brighter Future Despite Anti-Latino Environment.” Based on research in several states, the report reveals that in the face of daily challenges, most Hispanic youngsters have “a positive, resilient orientation toward their lives and future aspirations.”

In that, they reflect their parents’ optimism and ambitions. That is particularly noticeable among recent immigrants.

Thus they are not particularly different from the waves of immigrants that have washed up on our shores since colonial times. They share a belief in a better tomorrow and are not easily derailed by the negativity or pitfalls they encounter.

These data come from a study released in Washington, D.C., by the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest national Hispanic civil rights organization.

As realized by many, the report corroborated that Latino youth experience pervasive ethnic stereotyping in their daily lives. Adults who could and should be helping these youngsters integrate into mainstream society frequently throw up roadblocks.

The study, Speaking Out: Latino Youth on Discrimination in the United States, is the fruit of focus groups with first- and second-generation children of Hispanic immigrants. They discussed their experiences among those who impact them on a daily basis: teachers, school administrators, law enforcement personnel and others.

The study also noted that Latino children feel strong pressure from parents and their community to obtain a college education and a good job. They accept those expectations – and yet only 55 percent of Latino students graduate from high school with a regular diploma. (Others ultimately acquire a GED.)

In reflecting on the challenges they face, the teenagers in the focus groups, who live in Los Angeles, Calif.; Nashville, Tenn.; Langley Park, Md.; and Providence, R.I., spoke about being consistently viewed as outsiders in their daily interactions with teachers, administrators and peers.

Other major findings include:
• Reflecting the hopes and expectations of their immigrant parents, Latino youth tend to have an optimistic outlook on the role of education and a strong desire to secure successful careers.
• They reported significant ethnic stereotyping that they feel often leads to Hispanic students being overlooked, excluded or negatively tracked, all of which results in unequal educational opportunities.
• Focus group participants often perceived the workplace as a site of unfair practices, based on racial and ethnic assumptions on the part of employers.
• The teenagers emphatically described feeling unfairly and habitually profiled by law enforcement as a result of negative assumptions regarding Hispanic youth, gangs and immigrants in general. Such regular contact with the police in a variety of circumstances compounds feelings of vulnerability and distrust in their communities.

Hispanic Outlook readers will not be surprised by these findings. Interesting to note, the study identifies distinctions between places of residence. For example, Hispanic youth in Los Angeles and Langley Park expressed fear from constant, up-close exposure to gangs and the likelihood that police officers will profile them as gang members.

The Latino youth in Tennessee experienced by far the greatest degree of negative stereotyping and prejudiced behaviors. Hispanics there feel the most blatantly marginalized in school, on the job and in the streets. Perhaps because they are truly minorities in those areas, they stand out more.

Positive Difference

Some of the focus group participants spoke fondly of teachers, regardless of ethnicity, who had made a positive difference in their lives. They had gone out of their way to be helpful and encouraging. They’d devised structured interventions, such as GED opportunities and other educational programs for at-risk minority youth, which succeeded in putting students on track to finish high school and move on to college.

“Throughout our nation’s history, children of immigrants have served as a bridge between sacrifice and success. While Latino teenagers are optimistic about their future and recognize that hard work is the key to achievement, they are coming of age at a time when the national discourse is immersed in anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic sentiment. This is reflected in their daily lives, in school and in their neighborhoods, and it is detrimental to them and our nation as a whole,” noted Eric Rodríguez, La Raza vice president. 

Changing the Tone

The study underscores the need to change the tone of public discourse about the role of immigrants and Hispanics in U.S. society. Structural perceptions that contribute to stereotyping and discrimination within our institutions have to change. Policies should be established to build social cohesion and support.

Rodríguez eloquently noted, in issuing the report, “Latino adolescents want to do the best they can to follow their dreams and contribute to our nation. Listening to what they have to say about their lives and their hopes and fears for the future is pivotal to envisioning better policies and programs that will allow these youth – our future workers, voters and leaders – to thrive.”

Political Possibilities

Speaking Out provides insight into the environment and formative experiences that are shaping the attitudes and beliefs of this next generation of Americans. Their numbers are not insignificant; they represent hundreds of thousands of potential new voters. Their growing sophistication leads one to believe they will be active participants in the nation’s political cauldron. 

To be specific, there are 16 million Latino youth in the U.S. That represents more than 22 percent of the population under age 18. A significant cohort. 

Further, according to Democracia U.S.A.’s thoughtful analysis of U.S. Census data, 500,000 Hispanics will reach the voting age of 18 every year for the next 20 years. Any political party that ignores that does so at its peril. 

White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics 

During the 1980s, President George H. W. Bush devised and established a White House initiative to focus on enhancing educational opportunities for Hispanics. It became a yearly event and generated suggestions and strategies. Many were implemented; some were not.

Every president since then, regardless of political affiliation, has held an annual signing at the White House while introducing new initiatives. A few months ago, President Obama signed the latest Executive Order “to renew and enhance educational excellence for Hispanics.” The goal continues the same – to better serve communities across the country by engaging them in the process of improving the education of Latino students. The latter represent a significant number: one of every five students in our nation’s schools is Hispanic.

“This year’s Executive Order was predicated on data gathered under the auspices of the continuing Initiative in more than 100 community conversations across the country.” Among those consulted were parents, educators and community leaders from more than 30 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Many had participated for several years.

In total, comments from more than 10,000 Americans on how to develop real solutions to the challenges confronting educational realities in the Hispanic community were considered.

It is sometimes easy to become discouraged, to look at the glass as half empty and to ignore the progress that has been achieved since President George H. W. Bush’s initiative.

But since his presidency, experts and community leaders from around the country have been brought together annually to focus on Hispanic issues ranging from early childhood learning to higher education.

Remembering the first themes of this column, let’s look on the bright side of reality.

A Degree of Success

These initiatives and others at the local level have indeed increased the number of Hispanic college students. Most, more than half, enter higher education at the community college level, at schools that are close by, inexpensive and student oriented. They have a good 100-year track record. Unfortunately, their dropout rate is far too high. But effective retention programs are in full force at many of those institutions. More Hispanics graduate every year.

Very talented Hispanics, invariably those tagged by their parents, schools or colleges themselves early on, frequently go directly to four-year colleges. Some receive very substantial scholarships. During ninth grade, students should begin to explore scholarship opportunities. Two that seek to help talented students are the Bill & Melinda Gates and Jack Kent Cooke foundations.

There is a lure to attend highly regarded and expensive Ivy League colleges. And that’s fine. But are they really worth the vastly higher tuition and fees? 

Which Graduate Is More Attractive in Today’s Job Market?

A recent survey has bolstered the growing argument that private elite colleges are not as desirable as they once were. U.S. companies are increasingly recruiting from large state schools over private elite institutions, according to a Wall Street Journal survey of recruiting executives in nearly 30 industries, including finance, consulting, marketing and technology.

State schools have an expansive population of graduates. They’re easier to tap for talent, as graduates of top public institutions tend to be among the best prepared and fit well with their corporate cultures, according to The Journal.

That’s good news, for college tuition has outpaced Americans’ ability to pay it. The Economist reported earlier that median household incomes grew 6.5 percent in the past 40 years but the cost of attending a state school rose 15 percent for in-state students and 24 percent for out-of-state students. The cost of private colleges rose by roughly the same rate or less, but their tuition remains out of reach for many families.

One year at a private four-year university averaged $35,636 in 2009-10, according to the College Board. In-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions averaged far less, at $7,020, while out-of-state averaged $18,548. Graduates of elite schools might argue that they’re more likely to earn higher incomes upon graduation, but research proves that’s not the case.

In a study featured at the National Bureau of Economic Research, selectivity of schools generally had little effect on incomes once other factors, such as SAT scores, were taken into account. In other words, students with the same test score would earn roughly the same income, regardless of the school they attended.

So apply if you can – but don’t think it is your only option – or even your best one.

One last warning. An unpleasant trend is the increasing number of students who become overburdened with student loans. Too many take on too much debt. It is not surprising that an increasing number of graduates are defaulting on their student loans, which in some cases can be excessive and oppressive.