There’s much ado about Latinx among a certain subset of political and media commentators today. The rest of you, though, are probably already confused. Let me quickly explain. As my colleague Christian Paz recently detailed, the term Latinx was originally popularized by academics and activists to serve as a gender-neutral replacement for Latino/a. In recent years, the label has ballooned in popularity, and is now deployed constantly by mainstream media outlets from NPR to the New York Times, and by Democratic politicians from Elizabeth Warren to Joe Biden.
There’s just one tiny problem: A series of surveys have shown that most Latinos have never even heard of the word Latinx—and that many who have are actively opposed to it.
In August 2020, Pew found that only a quarter of Hispanics were familiar with Latinx, and just 3 percent of them used it. Fast forward to November 2021, and a new nationwide survey conducted by Latino pollster Fernand Amandi—who advised Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaigns—found that just 2 percent of respondents identified with Latinx. At the same time, 40 percent said that the term bothered or offended them, while 30 percent said they’d be less likely to back a politician or organization that employed it.
Another indicator of the term’s obscurity is the fact that many Latino politicians refuse to use it. As Paz reported, “Legislators and their staff shy away from it, and the word is almost never discussed among the country’s top Latino elected officials, despite outsize attention to it in mainstream media.”
Democrats have lost ground with Latino voters in recent elections, and some have pinned this on out-of-touch terminology like Latinx. But the obscure term is not the cause of the growing progressive problem with Latino voters. It’s a symptom. As Matt Yglesias writes:
The issue is that if you’ve got a group of people talking this way, it likely reflects a lack of direct engagement with the community in question, which is going to be a larger political problem …
And I think it speaks to a larger ideological issue, which is that progressives have been banking on the growing Hispanic population to create their hoped-for majority, but they seem very uninterested in paying attention to the actual views of Americans of Latin ancestry.
Put another way: The unearned prevalence of Latinx among progressive elites is a linguistic expression of a more fundamental disconnect between them and the community they’re trying to reach. It reflects a privileging of symbolism over substance and language over material concerns. This is politically perilous, because those who substitute ideological activist frames for on-the-ground engagement with a minority community will likely miss important things about it.
And this phenomenon doesn’t just happen in the United States.
Israel’s Latinx Problem
One fun thing about reporting on both domestic and international politics is that you quickly discover that the problems you thought were unique to your society actually aren’t. Indeed, examining those problems in another context can help you understand and address your own.
To that end, here’s a story that might sound familiar. In Israel, there is a minority community that is typically called one thing by activists and some in the media, but that calls itself many other things in surveys and polls. That community is the Arab community, which comprises 20 percent of Israel’s population. To some activists and journalists, they are simply “Palestinians,” separate and alienated from broader Israeli society. But that’s not what many tell pollsters.
In 2019, a survey by progressive pollsters Dahlia Scheindlin and David Reis found that while 14 percent of Arabs in Israel identified as “Palestinian,” 19 percent preferred “Palestinian-Israeli,” 22 percent went with “Arab,” and a full 46 percent chose “Arab-Israeli.” In 2020, a survey by Professor Camil Fuchs, one of Israel’s top pollsters, offered a few more options—and got even more remarkable results. Given the option to identify as simply “Israeli,” 23 percent of Arab respondents picked that label. 15 percent chose “Arab,” while 51 percent opted for “Arab-Israeli.” Just 7 percent went with “Palestinian.”
This growing Arab identification with Israel is part of a broader pattern. Already in 2017, polls found that 60 percent of Arab citizens held a positive view of the Israeli state, even as 47 percent felt that they were “treated unequally.” Of the Arabs surveyed, 63 percent said that Israel was a “positive” place to live, compared with 34 percent who said it was not. Another survey that year found that 51 percent of Arabs in Israel described themselves as “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israeli, while 56 percent of Arab respondents characterized the country’s situation as “good” or “very good”—compared with just 44 percent of Jewish respondents.