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Could Democrats' use of 'Latinx' backfire in its Latino outreach?

The term "Latinx" isn't used widely among Latinos, raising questions of how inclusive it really is.
Photo illustration: A blue cardboard piece with the text,\"Latinx\" with a few badges lying around that read,\"I Voted\".
Democrats and progressive activists have increasingly embraced the term “Latinx,” but the term is rarely used in the Latino community.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

In recent years, Democrats and progressive activists have increasingly embraced the term “Latinx,” a gender-neutral alternative to the term “Latino,” referring to people of Latin American heritage. But a new poll highlighted in Politico suggests the term is deeply unpopular among Latinos — and even a source of frustration substantial enough to make some Latino voters skeptical of those who use the term.

The poll raises important questions about what it means for Democrats — including the president — to address a community using a term that just a small percentage of that community uses. It’s an odd situation: Typically, Democrats catch up with progressive trends after they've spread enough to seem safe or beneficial to join; this seems to be an instance of the party jumping ahead of a trend. Now, Democrats and activists within the party could face a dilemma over which kind of inclusiveness in language best serves progressive goals.

Here's Politico's summary of the numbers from the recent national poll of 800 Latino voters:

Only 2 percent of those polled refer to themselves as Latinx, while 68 percent call themselves “Hispanic” and 21 percent favored “Latino” or “Latina” to describe their ethnic background, according to the survey from Bendixen & Amandi International, a top Democratic firm specializing in Latino outreach.

More problematic for Democrats: 40 percent said Latinx bothers or offends them to some degree and 30 percent said they would be less likely to support a politician or organization that uses the term.

The statistics reflect the fact that the term Latinx, which started gaining traction in queer Latino activist circles and in academia in the 2010s, hasn’t been widely adopted among people with Latin American heritage in the U.S.

But the most eye-catching data points are concerning the substantial percentages of Latino voters — among Democrats, Republicans and independents — who said the term bothered them and could dampen their support for a group that uses the term. In other words, the poll not only raises the question of whether it’s ineffective to use the term, but if using it could alienate voters and repel some of the citizens it’s intended to draw in.

It's a meaningful opportunity to discuss the mechanics of building a more inclusive party and nation.

There are some significant caveats to consider with this poll, which was conducted by a Democratic-aligned firm. The survey’s results aren’t weighted, which means its sample hasn’t been adjusted to ensure it aligns with the demographics of the national population. (Unweighted poll results tend to overrepresent, for example, older respondents and more educated people.) And the questions asking respondents if the use of Latinx bothers them don’t offer an alternative option — e.g., “or does it not bother you” — meaning they could subtly push people toward saying they are bothered.

That being said, it doesn’t appear to be a wild outlier; other polls haven’t shown Latinx to be a widely used term. Pew Research Center found that 3 percent of adult Latinos used the term Latinx. And it’s relevant for this analysis to point out that a recent Ipsos poll of American adults — not just Latinos — found that the term Latinx had roughly triple the net unfavorability that Hispanic and Latino did among Democrats.

These kinds of polls are fodder for some Democratic strategists and pundits to speculate that Democrats’ increasing use of Latinx explains recent performance issues, such as the 8 percentage point increase in Latino support for former President Donald Trump between 2016 and 2020 and Democrats losing some congressional races in which Latino voters play a decisive role.

In reality, that sort of speculation shouldn't be taken too seriously. “Latino” vs. “Latinx” was not a major issue of debate in the run-up to 2020, so there’s no evidence suggesting it was a salient issue for Latino or Democratic voters. Experts have pointed out that issues like Latino voters’ views on the economy during Covid-19 and Trump’s de-escalation of anti-immigration hysteria — amid a surge of new, less ideologically committed Latino voters — were likely driving factors in the shift toward Republicans.

Nonetheless, should more polls confirm Bendixen’s finding, it should prompt some reflection on the path forward as Democrats reflect on struggles with outreach to Latino voters. Hugely influential Democrats including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez use Latinx. Joe Biden, both as a presidential candidate and as president, has used the term (and Republicans have tried to mock him for it). Who is the real constituency to whom these politicians are speaking?

The principle behind Latinx — to use an identifying term that isn’t gendered and is inclusive of transgender and nonbinary people — is laudable. But if the everyday use of the term elicits suspicion even among people generally sympathetic to inclusive projects, then using the term widely could end up damaging the very cause of liberation and equality that Latinx is meant to encapsulate and advance. To put it more concretely, if it's a turn-off for some Latinos, that may mean more Republicans in office — and more threats to trans rights and gender equality.

While an advocate for using Latinx might argue that language is an integral of the political project, it's worth noting that a political party has unique power to change policies and laws surrounding trans rights, but has far less power to shift American cultural attitudes on it.

I asked Angelica Luna-Kaufman, a senior director for the Texas Democratic Party, about whether the party used Latino or Latinx when reaching out to Texas’ large and growing Latino population. She told me “it depends on the audience,” and she described how Latino might be used at an event of Latino veterans who are 65 and older but how Latinx would be more likely to be used with a younger urban population. “Just because you’re trying to be inclusive with one portion doesn’t mean you’re necessarily alienating another portion,” she said.

Luna-Kaufman’s point about how Democrats can code-switch depending on the setting and not worry too much about the vocabulary being a zero-sum game is a reasonable one. Politicians can and do use different language with different sets of constituents. But there are still questions surrounding how the president should address the community nationally and what the standard go-to will be among Democrats at the national level. And while the Latino vs. Latinx debate isn't a top-tier concern as Democrats contemplate Latino voter engagement strategy, messaging and policy concerns, it's a meaningful opportunity to discuss the mechanics of building a more inclusive party and nation.

Consider how India Walton, a socialist candidate for mayor of Buffalo, New York, this year decided to abandon use of the "defund the police" slogan during her campaign that she was once almost certain to win. After she faced pushback on it, she decided to keep advocating for policies of reallocating police budgets for alternative safety programs, but distances herself from the slogan — because she believed it didn’t translate to a nonactivist audience. “You cannot encapsulate [proposals for reallocating police budgets] in one word and expect people in the general electorate to understand what that means,” she told me in October.

Using Latinx involves analogous trade-offs between appealing to a young activist set and a general electorate set. Regardless of how Democrats choose to refer to the Latino community in the future, none of that should involve reneging on the party’s policy commitments to trans rights and gender equality. The question, rather, is strategic: what’s the most effective way to protect them at this given moment.