OPINION

Words Can Be Powerful Weapons

LOS ANGELES - MAY 1:  Demonstrators march to City Hall (C) in one of several May Day marches and rallies in southern California and in at least 75 cities nationwide to press for immigrant and labor rights May 1, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. The protest is expected to be smaller than the May 1, 2006 march that drew more than 650,000 protesters, the largest turnout in Los Angeles history when large numbers of illegal immigrants carrying the flags of both the U.S. and their countries of origin sparked an anti-immigrant rights backlash among conservatives. Some of the anger that motivated protesters in 2006 was reportedly lessened as Congress failed to pass legislation that would have criminalized illegal immigrants and toughened U.S.-Mexico border enforcement.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES - MAY 1: Demonstrators march to City Hall (C) in one of several May Day marches and rallies in southern California and in at least 75 cities nationwide to press for immigrant and labor rights May 1, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. The protest is expected to be smaller than the May 1, 2006 march that drew more than 650,000 protesters, the largest turnout in Los Angeles history when large numbers of illegal immigrants carrying the flags of both the U.S. and their countries of origin sparked an anti-immigrant rights backlash among conservatives. Some of the anger that motivated protesters in 2006 was reportedly lessened as Congress failed to pass legislation that would have criminalized illegal immigrants and toughened U.S.-Mexico border enforcement. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)  (2007 Getty Images)

The terms "illegal immigrant" and “illegals” were first used in 1939 as slurs by the British toward Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and entering Palestine without authorization. Today, the racially charged terms are regularly leveled at people who reside in the United States without authorization, particularly Hispanics. What’s worse, their use has been officially sanctioned.

Since 2004, the Associated Press has directed journalists to use "illegal immigrant" and other combinations of the word “illegal” when referring to people in this group. Most of the national media follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which is the industry bible for the appropriate use of language, and consequently the majority of U.S. media outlets refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” University of Memphis journalism professor Thomas Hrach conducted a study of 122,000 news stories published between 2000 and 2010. He found that 89 percent of the time journalists used the terms "illegal, illegal immigrant or illegal alien."  

But after much criticism and pressure from the Latino community, AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll announced on Tuesday that AP is changing its stylebook and calling on media outlets to stop using the term “illegal immigrant.”  

When the brain hears and reads “illegals” and “illegal aliens” over and over again, these hate words spread subconsciously, triggering fear and resentment that America is a dangerous place under attack by hordes of invading aliens.

- Charles Garcia

It’s too early to tell if this change will cause our current political leaders, like John McCain, Paul Ryan and Secretary Janet Napolitano to stop ardently promoting this slur, which they continue to use despite the pleas of the Latino community.   

Far too many journalists and commentators chalk these pleas up as another example of political correctness run amok, despite strong arguments to the contrary. New York Times editorial writer Lawrence Downes, for instance, says the term "illegal" is often "a code word for racial and ethnic hatred.“

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Linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff has also warned journalists that language is not neutral. Lakoff explains that, if you study the way the brain processes language, “every word is defined with respect to frames”. Each frame triggers ideas and emotions that subconsciously lead you to certain choices. When the brain hears and reads “illegals” and “illegal aliens” over and over again, these hate words spread subconsciously, triggering fear and resentment that America is a dangerous place under attack by hordes of invading aliens.

Why does any of this matter? Because words can be loaded guns.

In May 2011, Juan Varela was in his front yard in Phoenix when he was shot by his white neighbor, who was yelling "Go back to Mexico or die!" Juan was a fifth-generation American.

In May 2010, in the Arizona border town of Avivaca, 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father Raul were gunned down in their house by a Minuteman vigilante group. The group first killed her father. Then, as the little girl begged “Please don’t shoot me,” her head was blown off at point blank range in front of her mother, who survived the attack. Both father and child were natural-born U.S. citizens.

In November 2008, in Long Island, N.Y., seven white teenagers admitted to the perverse sport of “beaner hopping.” One of their victims was Marcelo Lucero, who was waiting for a train around midnight. They terrorized him with racial slurs, and then beat and stabbed him to death. Marcelo was a church-going Ecuadoran foreign national who worked at a local dry cleaner to help feed his family.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg — over the past decade there has been a spike in hate crimes against Latinos. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Latinos in 2010 made up 66 percent of ethnically motivated violence, up from 45 percent in 2009.

Hill + Knowlton Strategies, one of the world’s leading communications firms, conducted eight focus groups in Phoenix, Charlotte, Houston and Chicago to better understand current public opinion about Latinos among Anglo-Americans. The full study will be released next Friday during Hispanicize 2013, which brings together Latino newsmakers in journalism, film, social media and marketing. One of the most disturbing findings was that nearly 80 percent of Anglo-Americans believe Hispanics are involved in criminal activity —  “illegal” activity, in other words. And the public’s view of the percentage of undocumented Hispanics in the U.S. is greatly skewed — 75 percent overestimate the proportion of Latinos in the U.S. who are undocumented.

If most Anglo-Americans believe I’m an unauthorized immigrant involved in criminal activity because my last name is Garcia, then it’s clear to me that this is not simply about political correctness. Words matter.  

The incessant use of the racial slur “illegals” and “illegal immigrant” is perpetuating negative sentiments of the Latino population, and putting a target on the back of innocent Hispanics.

Now, it’s up to the likes of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to stop sitting there like the three monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" and to cease using language that promotes misconceptions and hatred.

Charles Garcia, CEO of Garcia Trujillo Holdings, has served in the administration of four presidents. He is the best-selling author of two leadership books and was named in the book "Hispanics in the USA: Making History" as one of 14 Hispanic role models for the nation books. Follow him on Twitter: @charlespgarcia.

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