“Awash under a brown tide.” “The relentless flow of immigrants.” “Human flows … remaking the face of America.” In the past decade, such deprecating metaphors have permeated media accounts of the growing Latino population in the United States, paving the way for the victories of three state ballot propositions targeting immigrants and Latinos, a UCLA linguist argues in a new book.
“Far from being mere figures of speech, these metaphors produce and sustain a negative public perception of the Latino community and its place in American society,” Otto Santa Ana writes in “Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse” (University of Texas Press). “Because these characterizations preclude the view that Latinos are vested with the same rights and privileges as other citizens, they primed the pump for the passage of Prop. 187 (against state-sponsored assistance for immigrants), Prop. 209 (against affirmative action) and Prop. 227 (against bilingual education).”
An associate professor in UCLA’s Cesar Chavez Center for Chicano Studies, Santa Ana tabulated and analyzed all the metaphorical language used by the one major metropolitan daily the Los Angeles Times in coverage of the propositions between May 1, 1992, and July 31, 1998.
Among troubling findings:
· During the six years Santa Ana identified metaphors, Latinos were characterized in deprecating terms in 90 percent of cases, with abundant comparisons to disease, weeds and animals.
· Santa Ana was able to find only one affirmative metaphor the immigrant as angel in the entire six-year period, and the characterization was used exclusively by clergy.
· Of more than 1,500 metaphorical references to the United States that were identified by Santa Ana, 98 percent characterized the nation as a body or a home; in all these cases, immigrants or immigration were characterized as a threat to the national health or hearth.
To be sure, many of the pejoratives first appeared in comments made by proponents of these propositions, Santa Ana found. But the metaphors quickly worked their way into what should have been objective reporting, as well as the comments of stated opponents to the propositions.
“While the Los Angeles Times news writers are not overtly racist, their perpetuation of these metaphors contributed to demeaning and dehumanizing the immigrant workers and their children,” Santa Ana said.
Nevertheless, the study was not designed to single out weaknesses in any particular media outlet, Santa Ana stressed. Indeed, he conducted a less-extensive survey of more than 20 major daily newspapers, and determined that they used the troubling metaphors at least as frequently as the Los Angeles Times.
“The idea is, if there were problems at a publication that has a solid reputation for fair treatment of immigrant issues, then they probably would be found throughout the media, and that indeed appears to be the case,” Santa Ana said. “Journalists have to pay much more attention to the influence of the metaphors that they perpetuate.”
Other troubling trends in referendum coverage:
· “Dangerous waters” proved to be the dominant metaphor for immigration during the Prop. 187 debate, including numerous references to floods, tides and waves with the power to drown or demolish. Examples included “foreigners who have flooded into the country,” “massive flow of illegal immigrants” and “immigrants streaming into the country.” The theme surfaced in more than one-half of all allusions to immigration between June 1, 1992, and Dec. 31, 1994. “Immigrants became at best natural resources to be controlled and exploited and at worst to be feared for potential damage,” Santa Ana writes.
· The dominant metaphor for immigrants was animals, including references to the immigrants being “hunted out,” “baited,” “lured” and “ferreted out.” Examples included “(Prop.) 187 backers devour the weak and helpless,” “once the electorate’s appetite has been whet with the red meat of deportation” and “(INS) agents must quit the chase.” In all, the theme which Santa Ana characterizes as “overtly racist and dehumanizing” surfaced in nearly one-third of all allusions to immigrants from 1992 to 1994.
· The second most-common metaphor for both immigration and immigrants was war, as in the sense of “takeover” or “invasion” for immigration and “soldier” and “invader” for immigrants. References included “invasion of brown hordes,” “this Third World takeover” and “a state of siege in California.” The theme appeared in nearly one-fifth of all allusions to immigrants during the same period. “The military language fostered a fear of immigrants and then played on that fear every time it was reintroduced,” Santa Ana said.
· The dominant metaphor for education during the debate surrounding bilingual education equated schools with paths and tracks in factories as if students were manufactured on assembly lines. Examples included references to schools with children who “fall behind when they are taught academic subjects in a language they are still learning” and the “need … to … get our young people back on track.” Between June 1, 1996, and July 2, 1998, two-thirds of allusions to school achievement and more than one-half of allusions to curriculum echoed this theme. “The characterization is used so often that we hardly notice it,” Santa Ana said. “But the mechanistic language takes U.S. society off the hook for deplorable educational outcomes by putting the onus for academic failure on children who fall off the conveyor belt, rather than on adults who are in control of the educational system.”
With coverage of the affirmative action debate, the primary object of metaphorical language switched from immigration and immigrant to race, racism, merit and fairness, Santa Ana found. Like Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders who originally made a case for affirmative action in the 1960s, supporters of Prop. 209 repeatedly compared racism with cancer, the linguist found.
Unlike the earlier generation, however, Prop. 209 supporters did not characterize affirmative action as the remedy for this “cancer of the body politic,” but as an ailment itself. Examples included references to “the toxic consequences” of affirmative action and its “malignant real-world effects” and the extent to which it “infects every facet of public life.”
While these characterizations appeared almost exclusively in comments made by proponents of Prop. 209, Santa Ana found few if any examples where either reporters or opponents challenged the idea of affirmative action as the vector of racism.
“Neo-conservatives co-opted the discourse of such great civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. and a complacent society just accepted this subverted metaphor,” he said. “Progressives did not make the case for retaining affirmative action.”
In addition to casting immigrants in an unfavorable light, pejorative metaphors tended to shift attention from the issue at hand to more emotional grounds, Santa Ana argues. In the case of Prop. 187, for instance, alarming animal and war characterizations accounted for more than 80 percent of all metaphorical allusions to immigrants, Santa Ana found. In contrast, only 5 percent of metaphors during this period cast immigrants as a financial burden, which Santa Ana found remarkable since Prop. 187 was designed to alleviate the primary sources of financial drain allegedly caused by the statewide surge in illegal immigration.
“If the threat felt by the public was principally a matter of economics, one would expect that the dominant metaphor in public discourse would reinforce a fiscal message,” Santa Ana said. “The schism between the implied and the stated issue really calls the motives of the proposition’s proponents into question, yet the media was not doing so. Reporters unwittingly adopted and perpetuated language and biases of proponents.”
The study received funding from the National Research Council, National Ford Foundation, California Policy Seminar and UCLA Faculty Senate.