We all want to be valued members of the groups to which we belong. For Latinos in the United States, this isn’t easy. Rhetoric that casts Latinos as a threat to other Americans is a fact of life.

Do words matter? To Latinos? To all Americans?

In a study that started last summer, we learned that anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric can leave psychological damage in its wake. But the findings also point to a pathway for undoing that damage, by the simple act of bringing attention to a group’s positive contributions and membership in the larger group. If we can replace hateful rhetoric with language that is positive and inclusive, we won’t just help Latinos feel good about themselves. We’ll also help to build a stronger United States.

Seeing Latinos as a threat

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Some may be tempted to think that anti-Latino rhetoric is a new phenomenon, a product of changes to the political discourse that first appeared during the presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016. That would be wrong. The history is much longer. During the era of the Great Depression, for example, people who looked “Mexican”—including U.S. citizens—were deported to Mexico as a way to reduce competition for scarce jobs or conserve poverty relief funds for people deemed more deserving. In Los Angeles alone, these actions cut the Latino population by one third.

That’s the history Donald Trump tapped into when he began his campaign on June 16, 2015, by calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. But Trump did not stop with immigrants, going on to target Americans with Mexican heritage. In a highly publicized attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel that members of his own political party called “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” Donald Trump questioned the Judge’s ability to perform his job—overseeing a lawsuit involving Trump himself—because his parents had been born in Mexico. Trump’s attack on Curiel, an American citizen by birth in the United States, was an attack on all Americans of Mexican descent.

Far from punishing this anti-Latino rhetoric, significant numbers of Americans voted for Donald Trump—and today he is president of the United States.

Trump isn’t alone, of course. Earlier this year, Iowa congressman Steve King suggested that Latino children are a threat to the nation’s future: “Culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” This rhetoric drew a clear distinction between “us” (legitimate members of the nation) versus “them” (those who don’t belong) that casts Latinos as “other” who cannot be Americans.

Though it’s not possible to establish a causal link between this rhetoric and real-world violence, it is probably not an accident that hate crimes in nine U.S. cities rose more than 23 percent in 2016, according to a study by criminal justice professor Brian Levin at California State University, San Bernardino.

The psychology that drives these forces is well studied. Humans are social animals and group living is part of being human. Indeed, the tendency to form groups is so strong that the basis of group memberships need not be meaningful—it can be sudden and arbitrary. A set of famous studies used a method called the “minimal group paradigm” to divide people into groups. Whether the group distinction was “overestimators” versus “underestimators,” or an implied preference for one type of art versus another, people quickly start favoring their group at the expense of the other group.

Real or perceived competition, especially for resources that are valuable and scarce, exacerbates these tendencies to separate into groups and favor the in-group. These dynamics quickly set the stage for overt group conflict that is dangerous to members of devalued groups. Thus, it is no surprise that times of economic hardship are associated with increased acts of violence and discrimination toward members of devalued groups.

How words hurt

What is the impact of anti-Latino rhetoric on the mental health of Latinos?

To find out, we presented 285 college students of Mexican-heritage with three types of visual and written information: positive, negative, or neutral. Both the positive and negative information were conveyed through two statements and two images each. All were drawn from public discourse and findings from social-science studies about Latino immigrants and their children. The neutral information consisted of two statements and two images about the color of buildings on college campuses. Participants were randomly assigned to receive one of the three types of information. Afterward, we asked participants to comment on the information, and then respond to a series of questionnaires measuring anxiety, belonging, health status, identity, and community participation.

While our analysis is still in the early stages, preliminary findings indicate that hurtful public discourse can cut deeply. The comments of participants who received negative information frequently included words such as “sad,” “upset,” “angry,” and “hurt.” For example, a 24-year-old Mexican American woman who saw negative information said:

Anger, rage, frustration, impotence are just some of the words that come to mind, but I have so much to say that I am not able to properly articulate what I am trying to say, much less express myself in a healthy manner. These types of aggression’s [sic] are not new to me, so I know what it’s like to have these words and images being shouted at you, and making you feel out of place, ashamed and inferior, even though you were born in the U.S.

Her comment vividly describes the experience of despair and alienation that Americans of Latino background can feel after reading and viewing negative rhetoric.

In contrast, positive words and images can have a salutary effect. Participants who viewed positive information peppered their comments with words such as “proud,” “happy,” “benefit,” and “contribution.” For example, this 19-year-old woman who was born in the U.S. said:

As I read the quotes and see the images I think that individuals that come to America should be welcomed. Parents that are not citizens but have children that are U.S. citizens encourage their children to be successful and make them proud and it is clearly shown. There is sufficient evidence that “immigrants” contribute to society and I believe that individuals should be more accepting of foreigners because they arrive to the U.S. with the goal to persevere and be successful. As a Mexican-American, I feel proud reading the quotes and seeing the images. I feel very emotional because in the present-day individuals discriminate not only against immigrants but their children. I am glad to see that we are contributing to society and I wish Americans could see that. I wish that they can see we are not harming “their” country; we are helping it grow.

In our study, the prominence of the anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric in the presidential election was anxiety-provoking among participants of Mexican heritage. We compared participant responses collected before and after the November 8, 2016, election on a scale of perceived stress, which measures a person’s perception that demands or pressure exceed their ability to control things in their life and cope with its problems—and we did indeed find much more anxiety after the election. This doesn’t seem unreasonable. After all, their new president came to power by denigrating and stigmatizing people like them.

Should this matter only to Latinos? Rhetoric that seeks to divide people by increasing a sense of threat—and then targeting members of devalued groups as the source of that threat—may lead to short-term political gains, but it also has long-term societal costs. Those costs come in the form of disintegration of the societal fabric—a sense of disconnect from people deemed “other.” In turn, this disintegration can lead to unwillingness to work together to build and maintain strong, stable, and safe societies. When that happens, we all lose.

In fact, history and recent events are replete with examples of the social and economic costs that occur when groups are singled out as “other” and denied social integration. In 2005, French-Algerian and French-Moroccan youth who, despite their many generations in France, are alienated and unaccepted by the larger French society acted on their frustrations by setting fire to cars and buildings in one of France’s worst incidents of urban violence. Sadly, these tensions continue today.

Fortunately, there are alternatives.

How words can help

Taken together, our preliminary findings highlight the fundamental importance of belonging and its role in psychological well-being. Indeed, the positive implications of the study’s findings dovetail nicely with the broader research on the psychological forces necessary to bring people together and amend the wrongs brought on by excesses of ethnocentrism. 

As our own research highlights, facts must be better known. This is particularly urgent for members of devalued groups who might psychologically, and perhaps physically, suffer as a result of internalizing negative rhetoric about their group as truth. Public discourse that fails to recognize U.S. Latinos as an integral part of the American fabric does special harm to U.S. Latinos, but it does all Americans a disservice. This is a difference we can all make, at home, in our neighborhoods, at work, or on social media. By knowing, and openly acknowledging, our shared history in public and private discourse, you can do your part to ensure that Latinos are socially integrated into the larger American group.

Second, we can recognize that immigration requires people to figure out where and how they belong to their new societies. Depending on the circumstances that led them to leave their home countries, immigrants may arrive with little knowledge of their new country’s language, history, or cultural norms. It takes time to figure this all out. Psychologists call the challenges that can accompany the immigration process “acculturation stress.” The degree of stress experienced depends in part on the reception one receives. Among U.S. Latinos, there is a saying “ni de aqui, ni de alla” that can be translated as “not from here, nor from there” which captures the feeling that one is neither accepted in the new country or the old one. But by expressing acceptance and appreciation for the contributions of new Americans, you can help make the incorporation process easier on new immigrants.

Third, the benefits of group living and group membership can be harnessed to include rather than exclude. Humans form groups, yes. But at any given time, everyone belongs to multiple social categories and, thus, multiple groups. U.S. Latinos are one flavor of American identity. The key is shifting from “they” to “we.” Research studies highlight the power of “we”—when separate groups of people become “we,” the processes that favor members of the in-group kick in for all members of the group. Social interaction and activities that highlight shared social categories can do this work of building a sense of “we” among people. You can look for opportunities—with friends, parents, children, and coworkers—to highlight the “we” among Americans of all ethnic groups. 

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Fourth, the comfort of “we” can serve as a spark to deeper connections among Latinos and non-Latinos. The use of “we” may prompt relationship-building self-disclosures or bring invitations to social events that replace the unfamiliar with a new pleasure (e.g., music, food). From these deeper connections, people can carve out a space for mutual acceptance of difference as a positive opportunity to engage with novelty. For members of devalued groups, messages of acceptance can transform feelings of alienation into feelings of belonging and all the psychological benefits that belonging can bring. If you are a member of the majority, reminders of all that “we” have in common can reduce the sense of threat brought about by exposure to anti-Latino rhetoric. Once the “we” is in motion, personal stories that build empathy and connection can be more easily shared, new kinds of similarity may be found, and even conflict can be more constructively resolved.

The current outbreak of the “Latino threat narrative” is not an isolated incident—but it gives us all an opportunity to contribute to the greater good by openly contesting it. The key is “we” over “they.” This goal is already enshrined in the national motto—e pluribus unum, which translates to “Out of many, one”—but we all need to be active agents in giving that motto the weight of psychological truth.

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