One Nation, Polarized?
Herman Badillo and the Limits of Liberalism
Review of Herman Badillo’s One Nation, One Standard
by Angelo Falcón, National Institute for Latino Policy (January 1, 2007)
In One Nation, One Standard: An Ex-Liberal on How Hispanics Can Succeed Just Like Other Immigrant Groups (New York: Sentinel, 2006), Herman Badillo at age 77 sums up his considerable life’s lessons for the Puerto Rican and Hispanic community. Published under the auspices of the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy, where Mr. Badillo is a senior fellow, this book has created a big stir within the Latino community even before it was released. First announced in the infamous tabloid, the New York Post, on December 19th with the headline, “Badillo lashes Latinos, Rips Hispanic Values,” it generated strong feelings, not only about Badillo’s views on the issues, but also about him personally. It was a little eerie in the manner this response was so similar to the reactions in the Black community to comments made by Bill Cosby, the anti- affirmative campaigns of Ward Connery, the recent book by Juan Williams, and the rulings of Supreme Courts Justice Clarence Thomas.
Now that the book is out, a more detailed examination of Mr. Badillo’s perspectives on the Hispanic condition is possible. One Nation, One Standard, with a foreword by former NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is 228 pages long with an additional 8 pages of black and white pictures of Mr. Badillo’s early career in politics. Its 11 chapters cover the author’s life growing up in Puerto Rico and the United States, his rise to power as the first Puerto Rican to serve as a full commissioner of a city agency, first borough president, first Congressman and first deputy mayor. It traces his dissatisfaction with the policy positions and politics of the Democratic Party, and his decision to leave the party and become a Republican. He covers his battles with the bureaucracies of the city’s public school system and its City University, as well as his role in promoting liberal legislation and policies at the local and national levels, such as bilingual education and the bilingual ballot provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act, which he now generally repudiates. He devotes to chapter to praise Giuliani and another on the future. In other words, the book covers a lot of ground.
The Importance of Education
The central problem Badillo seeks to address is that, “(a)s a community, Hispanics have simply failed to recognize the overriding importance of education.” (p. 30) He finds that, “The whole Hispanic community needs a total attitude adjustment regarding the importance of education.” (p. 31) Looking specifically at Asians, he observes that, “Hispanics, as a culture, do place less stress on the importance of education than do other, more economically and socially successful immigrant groups.” (p. 32) He elaborates, talking of Hispanics, that:
It is up to their own community members to involve themselves in their local school systems and understand how they work. Hispanics must not count on the school system or any arm of government to orient students. That is their responsibility, and the first step should be to recognize that, as a group. Hispanics have failed to assume responsibility for their children’s welfare. To be blunt, educating Hispanic children is not the duty of the governmental school system. This is their duty; as parents, family members, neighbors, and citizens. Whenever a child is left behind, it is not the fault of the teachers, or the principals, of the school chancellor, or the mayor, or the president. It is their fault.” (p. 51)
Any long climb takes effort, and serious educational achievement requires serious effort --- not just by individual students but by entire families and the whole Hispanic community. Hispanics must set aside talk of their great culture, their music, and their traditions and instead focus on educational accomplishment. (p. 195).
He concludes that, “Hispanics have no one to blame but themselves for the disastrous high-school dropout rates of the younger members of their community.” (p. 51)
Badillo’s Over Generalizations
Anticipating that he might be criticized for over generalizing, Badillo dismissively refers to a “culture of political correctness (that) dismisses any attempt at pattern recognition as ‘generalization’ and ‘stereotyping’” and asserts the authority of his being “blunt and plainspoken” as a New Yorker. (pp. 24-25) But his over generalizations are a serious problem. When he refers to “the whole Hispanic community” or of them “as a community” or “as a group”, and so on, he undermines his argument. This is compounded by the problem that at times it is not clear whether he is referring to Puerto Ricans or all Latinos.
Politically correct or not, Badillo’s attribution to the entire Latino community of anti-education attitudes and behaviors is classic stereotyping. The worst of it is that he is stereotyping against himself and his own family, since one must assume that he still considers himself a “Hispanic.” There are clearly Latinos who do not support education or the educational aspirations of their children, that is not in dispute, the question is how many and identifying who they are. Is it 10 percent or 30 percent? Is the percentage larger among new Latino immigrants, or Cubans, or Puerto Ricans? Is it a characteristic that is economically- based, or is it more broadly cultural as Badillo states?
Another question is whether such existing anti- education attitudes by parents have a negative effect on their children’s educational outcomes? In Badillo’s case, this didn’t seem to be the case. In fact, going against his own argument, his experience was one where he had to count on the public schools to orient him because his family apparently was, as he describes his upbringing, not at all involved in his schooling --- he did it all himself.
Badillo, for example, writes that, “When I attended City College and lived in West Harlem, I was the only resident in my apartment building who owned a typewriter and stayed up late doing homework. My relatives and friends did not encourage me to remain in school. They considered my interest in books an eccentricity.” (p. 30) He then goes on to relate that, “When I was relocation commissioner, I used to visit many Hispanic homes. In the vast majority of them, there was not a single book to be found. In many cases there was not even a newspaper. The only thing you could be sure to find was a television. It’s natural enough: If adults don’t read in a family, why expect the children to read?” (p. 31)
In a major study on the status of Latinos in the United States, the authoritative National Research Council issued a report in 2006 that found that:
Popular allegations that Hispanics value education less than do others groups are contradicted by evidence that large numbers of Hispanic high school students aspire to attend college. A study conducted by Public Agenda, a New York-based nonprofit public opinion research organization, found that 65 percent of Hispanic parents, compared to 47 percent of black and 33 percent of white parents, believed a college education is the single most important factor for economic success. (National Research Council 2006: 86)
This study found that in 2000, while Latinos made up 11 percent of high school graduates, they made up only 7 percent of students enrolled in 4-year colleges, but 14 percent of those in 2-year colleges. (Ibid: 87) Despite this, “College . . .,” Badillo argues, “is far from an automatic goal in a vast majority of Hispanic homes.” (my emphasis) (p. 30)
(Mis)Documenting the Hispanic Crisis?
The crisis that Badillo attempts to identify the source of is educational failure and the inability of Latinos to enter the American mainstream. He reports that, “In 2005, Hispanics dropped out of high school at a rate of over 50 percent.” (p. 30) To document that “education is not a high priority in the Hispanic community,” Badillo points out that “37 percent of whites between the ages eighteen and twenty-four are enrolled full-time or part-time in college, as opposed to 19 percent of Hispanics.” (p. 50) The ultimate result, Badillo observes, is that “most Hispanics remain in poverty, or barely above it . . .” (p. 194) That is the extent, in the book’s 228 pages, of Badillo’s documentation of the problem, by the way, with no sources cited.
These few statistics that Badillo cites, so central to his argument, are largely unsubstantiated. The “over 50 percent dropout rate” Badillo cites for 2005 is difficult to verify. The closest I could come is a 2005 working paper from the Manhattan Institute that argues that 52 percent of Latinos graduated from high school in 2002, using a methodology not used by the federal government. (Greene and Winters 2005) The National Center for Education Statistics (2005), a federal government agency, reports for 2001 (the latest year available on their website) that the high school event dropout rate (dropouts in one year) for those ages 15-24 was 9 percent for Hispanics, compared to 6 percent for Blacks, 4 percent for Whites and 2 percent for Asians. The status high school dropout rate (total dropouts for the group) for those 16-24, they report, was 27 percent for Hispanics, compared to 11 percent for Blacks, 7 percent for Whites and 4 percent for Asians, that same year. Relative to other major racial-ethnic groups, the Latino dropout rate is unacceptably high and is alarming, but Badillo’s “more than 50 percent” figure and his dating of it in 2005 appear both to be made up.
Badillo states that 19 percent of Hispanics ages 18- 24 were enrolled in college, but the Census reports that in 2005 the figure was 23 percent. (Current Population Survey 2006a) Is Badillo’s figure wrong, or is it dated and there has been some improvement? One can’t tell because Badillo does not cite a source or a year for the statistic. There is a problem as well when Badillo states that “most Hispanics remain in poverty . . .” According to the Census, in 2005, Latinos had a poverty rate of 22 percent (Current Population Survey 2006). “Most” and 22 percent are not even close.
This is not nit-picking because they are significant discrepancies, given the importance of these statistics to his basic argument, and raise serious questions about the integrity of all of his assertions in the book. Is it possible that these figures were simply pulled out from Badillo’s memory with no reference to existing research? What makes this especially troublesome and surprising is that he apparently received editorial and other support from an outfit that calls itself the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research!
Problems . . . and Solutions?
Despite this, given his illustrious career in public service spanning five decades, serious attention needs to be paid to the problems Badillo identifies facing Latinos today. He discusses the social policy problems of Latino dependency on government and institutions like public education (and its policies of social promotion, tracking and the misuse of gifted and special education programs), the failure of Latinos to learn English, and the lowering of standards in the City University of New York. He also identifies problems within the Latino community: their obsession with their “great culture, their music, and their traditions . . .” (p. 195); their ethnic ideology that focuses on group and not individual identity that has fragmented American life (p. 209); their demand for “special rights” (p. 210); and the failure of Latino leaders to repudiate perceptions that their community is demanding amnesty for illegals and not eager to learn English (p. 212).
Badillo’s exhortation to Latinos to eschew government solutions to problems is a good example of the inconsistency of much of his policy recommendations. While on the one hand arguing about the ineffectiveness and incompetence of government and its capture by special interests, he points out, nevertheless, that “although the pilot programs I developed in housing, employment, health and education did achieve some successes, the national support that those programs require(d) has varied between elusive and totally nonexistent.” (p. 2) In other words, it may not be the inherent problems with government, but lack of public support of government that could be the problem. This is one important inconsistency early in the book.
The other in this regard is telling Latino parents not to depend on the public schools and to be more self- reliant. While urging Latino parents not to blame policymakers for their woes, he also complains about how institutions like public education conspire not to be held accountable, thus implying that they should be held more accountable. But the question is by whom? Well, according to Badillo, it appears that they should be held accountable to Badillo himself, and people like Giuliani, Linda Chavez and the like. He decries the lack of support for parent participation by the school system, but never is very specific about how to promote it (nor is he ever critical of Mayor Bloomberg’s gutting of a serious parent role in current school governance).
The pity with much of the book is that Badillo does not see the irony in much of what he proposes. For example, when describing how he was almost trapped in a dead-end vocational track in high school, due to a “stroke of luck” a friend told him he should get into the academic program so he could go to college. (pp. 14-15) He explains that: “‘I don’t have any money for college,’ I said . . . ‘It doesn’t matter,’ my friend said. ‘City College is free, and you’ll get in if you have an academic diploma.’” (p. 15) Badillo went on to major in business and accounting at CUNY and got a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, taking advantage of the free tuition policy of a public university. In light of this history, Badillo’s anti- government rants ring a bit hollow.
Badillo as a Role Model?
The book’s basic approach of drawing public policy and life lessons for an entire community from the experiences of one man, no matter how old he is or will become, is a major flaw. First, Badillo is Puerto Rican and came to the United States already as a United States citizen, in contrast to more than 90 percent of the other Latinos who came to the United States as immigrants. It is an important distinction that he blurs by talking about himself as an immigrant, which even Giuliani does in the foreword.
Second, when Badillo explains that his deceased father had been a school teacher in Puerto Rico, that he is a Protestant, and that he migrated first to New York, then to Chicago, and Burbank, California, and then back to New York to go to high school in the 1940s and ‘50s, he establishes his experiences as pretty unique from the vast majority of Puerto Ricans migrating at the time at his age. His experience in Burbank with his uncle Tomás and his Irish wife, Janice, of personal rejection was poignant but unique, especially Badillo being elected as a student body president in an all white school despite not knowing much Spanish! (pp. 12-13) His Protestant background in the largely Catholic community also set him apart.
Third, as he describes his role in the public schools and the city university, as well as his close association with then Mayor Giuliani, he has become a polarizing figure within the Latino community, thus compromising his role model status. In his descriptions of those policy battles, he never spoke of any efforts on his part to use his status as an elder leader to reach out to or work with the Puerto Rican or Latino communities of which he is a part.
Because Badillo sets himself up personally as the standard by which to judge Latino accomplishments, he invites characterizations of himself as a leader and individual. Described by critics as “aloof” and “elitist,” his third person style of writing about his community reinforces this distance. Of the eight persons he thanks in his acknowledgement in the book, only one is Latino and that’s his longtime secretary for typing the manuscript, reinforcing his detachment from the community he is writing about. He also cites very few Latino authors. In the foreword, Giuliani explains in a very patronizing way that Badillo “never wanted to be thought of simply as a Hispanic, or as an immigrant, or as someone from a poor background. His dignity demanded that he be judged as a man, that his accomplishments be taken seriously on the merits, and that he be rewarded or otherwise on the basis of what he has done, rather than who he was” (p. ix), as it these were mutually exclusive things. And following this same pattern, this is the way Badillo separates what he considers the good from the bad guys (my terms):
Those who demand special rights for Hispanics are the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Council of La Raza, Aspira, and other Hispanic organizations. Those who oppose them and continue to promote assimilation include Linda Chavez, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harvard professor Stephan Thernstrom and his wife and co- author, Abigail, and the Manhattan Institute (a New York think tank). (p. 210)
Being a founder of some of these Hispanic organizations, Badillo doesn’t explain what role he played over the years in the development of their advocacy agendas. Did he serve on their boards, or make significant financial or volunteer contributions? He presents himself as someone not engaged in his own community for quite some time.
The impression given is that this book is partly autobiographical, but Badillo’s life is presented primarily to justify policy recommendations. The bits and pieces of his life presented in this book are too limited to constitute a useful autobiography that, given the pivotal role he played in Puerto Rican politics in the 1950s through the 1990s, he still needs to write.
Latinos Versus Blacks
Although more indirectly than others who have tackled this subject, in his book Badillo takes some pain to distance Latinos from the Black experience. Despite arguing that racial divisions need to be avoided and that “one standard” needs to be embraced by Latinos, he very bluntly describes the United States as a racist society.
“Almost from the first day I arrived in New York,” he points out, “it was clear to me that in the United States you are judged by the color of your skin.” (p. 15) “The division into majority and minority,” he goes on to write, “is very rigid in this country; if even a small portion of your ancestry is African-American, you are regarded as black and as part of the minority or inferior culture. I believe this is still true today.” (p. 16) (my emphasis) At another point, he observes that:
“. . . segregation is still a reality in many parts of this country. For example, on the Upper East Side, you seldom see African-Americans in any significant numbers. However, when you travel the subway system, you see that more than three quarters of the people are black or Latinos. A visitor would have to conclude that there are still two separate societies.” (p. 19)
Recounting a childhood incident, he finds that “America’s rigid racism --- which I acknowledge is not politically correct to discuss, but which is still evident to us from a different culture --- damages individuals.” (p. 21)
Claiming a non-racialist legacy from the Spanish in the Latino community, Badillo finds that:
Many Hispanic parents seem to accept the characterization of their community as a minority group, something they would find incomprehensible in the Latin and Caribbean countries from which they came. They accept labels such as ‘brown people’ or ‘people of color.’ Having gone along with such characterizations, some Hispanics behave as if they actually were a persecuted ethnic group, with a permanently diminished capacity for success.
They find excuses to justify their nonperformance. They say they live in poverty and cannot be expected to accomplish what middle-class or ‘white’ people do. They cite language problems as impediments to progress. They say, above all, that they are victims of discrimination and thus cannot move ahead. (p. 196)
However, he goes on to observe that, “I have never heard a Puerto Rican refer to himself or herself as a white Puerto Rican, a black Puerto Rican, or a hyphenated Puerto Rican of any kind.” (p. 16) Besides being inconsistent with his previous statement, this also reflects how detached he has become from his own community, because Puerto Ricans regularly identify themselves along racial lines, both stateside and in Puerto Rico. He is, in essence, perpetuating a Puerto Rican racial myth.
Badillo states that, “I do not believe in racial categories and consider them harmful and literally divisive. Latin Americans do not racially pigeonhole themselves and thus get along much better as a society.” (p. 180) “With a little ingenuity,” he argues,
America could redesign today’s government programs so that they could reach all who need them without scarring them with racist labels. We then would be well on our way to eliminating such categories as “African- American,” “Asian-American,” and “Hispanic- American” --- the one I myself helped to institute on the census --- and simply call ourselves Americans who share a unified culture.” (p. 183)
While Badillo calls on Latinos to move away from a racial identity, he doesn’t explain how. He describes America as an extremely racially divided society and tells Latinos to basically ignore this fact. Contrasting race relations in Puerto Rico with those in the United States he seems to say that in the US there is institutional discrimination while in Puerto Rico it occurs at the individual level. (p. 19) But, Badillo argues, “We further intensify such divisions when we establish racial-preference programs to grant special privileges to allegedly disadvantaged groups. Whatever benefits such programs provide are lost because of the stigma that adheres to the beneficiaries.” (p. 178-9)
“For the first part of my adult life,” Badillo explains, “I believed that achieving political power for the purposes of social change was the answer for moving that (sic?) Hispanic community ahead in America. By 1993 (when Giuliani was elected Mayor), I had changed my mind.” (p. 54) Discussing his decision to enter politics in the early 1950s, he stated that, “I began to see firsthand the many issues faced by the Hispanic community in New York, and my frustration in trying to help them on a case-by-case basis led me to think of a career in politics, where I could address the basic social problems of New York’s Hispanics and the rest of New York’s disadvantaged people.” (p. 22)
In light of his statements, what course of action is Badillo recommending for Latinos to follow? Is he asking them to abandon politics altogether as a strategy for social change? Is he asking them to reject group-based social action and demands? Or is he telling Latinos to address their social problems on a “case-by-case basis”? It really isn’t clear. Given the urgency with which he frames the need for change, Badillo needs to have been much clearer and specific in outlining a proposed course of action for Latinos than we find in his book.
Looking to the future, for example, Badillo projects (as we have all heard from Reagan Republicans to the present) that Latinos, because they are socially conservative, will move firmly into the Republican ranks. However, as the November elections clearly illustrated, this does not appear to be the case. Badillo’s personal political journey does not appear to be the destiny for the great majority of Latino voters who will continue to grapple with being taken for granted by the Democrats for some time to come.
The Spanish Legacy
Badillo attempts to explain much of the Latino community’s current problems by reference to their cultural values’ roots in the Spanish colonization of Latin America. He repeats the myth that Spain’s legacy to Latin America and by extension the Latino immigrant is a religiously-based set of non-racialized attitudes and practices, which he counts as perhaps its greatest contribution to Latino culture. But he also characterized this Spanish legacy as promoting “a disregard for the rule of law, an indifference to participatory democracy, . . . and a lack of enthusiasm for education.” (p. 3) He characterizes this as “a five-century siesta.”
But for some reason he omits any discussion of the United States’ influence on and political and military interventions in Latin America, most specifically the more than one century of its control over Puerto Rico. His account of Spain’s history and impact on the Latino community is overly general, thin and perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes. It also ignores the Latin American wars of independence from Spain and nation-building movements to establish autonomous liberal regimes.
As part of this discussion about what he considers Spain’s mostly negative influences, he also discusses what he called the “Puerto Rican predicament.” He characterizes the deteriorating economic and social position of Puerto Ricans in the 1970s, more than 30 year ago, ignoring more recent data and studies that indicate some improvement in that condition. Discussing the decline and rise of the South Bronx and the rest of Latino New York, he introduces the Dominican factor as follows:
Partly because the Dominican migration is predominantly male and the Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx is predominantly female-headed, Dominican-Puerto Rican marriages and liaisons are becoming common. It seems impossible to doubt that the Dominican migration is partly responsible for any resurgence, present or future, in the South Bronx and in New York’s Hispanic World. (p. 48)
The problem with this scenario is that the Dominican poverty rate is higher than that of Puerto Ricans, and that the gender differences he presents between the two communities is not as large as he describes.
This also brings to mind the problem that as Badillo addresses the immigration debate he does not differentiate Puerto Ricans, who come to the US already as US citizens, from other Latinos who do not. He also gives the impression that most Latinos in the US are immigrants, when in fact 60 percent are not. This confusion becomes evident when he writes that,
In the middle of the twentieth century, shortly after the end of the Second World War, Latin Americans in significant numbers came to the conclusion that this tragic legacy could not be overcome in their own countries . . . First came the Puerto Ricans, followed by Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, and then citizens of mainland Central and Latin American nations. (pp. 42-3)
Latino immigration to the United States has been occurring for a much longer period of time, and Puerto Ricans certainly were not the first to arrive in significant numbers, it was the Mexicans.
Conclusion: The Politics of the Badillo Book
This book is certainly not a politically innocent project. Badillo acknowledges that he wrote it at the suggestion of the head of the Manhattan Institute. The foreword by Rudy Giuliani, a virtually declared candidate for President in 2008, results in Badillo’s significant detour in the narrative of the book to praise Giuliani in detail. Finally, then there is his endorsement of a past Manhattan Institute project in Grenada, its Latin American and the Caribbean Basin Initiative, for adoption throughout Latin America (p. 7), as well as his support of their libertarian open borders immigration position has much of his book reading like one of their annual reports.
Ultimately, Badillo’s book reveals the real limits of liberalism when it comes to the issue of race. While he characterizes himself as an “ex-liberal,” his policy recommendations are in and of themselves not necessarily “conservative” or “neo-conservative.” His association with Giuliani and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s praise of the book as “brilliant” both attest to this. His general criticisms of government bureaucracy and school policies on tracking, the abuse of gifted and special education programs, and his support of greater parent involvement in the schools are not controversial and would be embraced by most in the Latino community.
His criticisms of bilingualism are more controversial, but the focus of his attacks on what would be termed transitional bilingual education while he supports dual language instruction and what seems to be his support of the bilingual ballots provisions of the Voting Rights Act, make his position on this issue unclear. Even approaches like charter schools have become mainstreamed, although the idea of school vouchers is still contentious.
The jury is still out on his legacy in the advocacy for ending open admissions at CUNY’s senior colleges as there are indications that enrollments are racially resegregating themselves between the community and senior colleges, and through initiatives like the new Honors Program. And rather than being anti- government, Badillo’s positions seem to favor continued big government, as does Giuliani, and reflect more of a concern with efficiency and ending race-based programs.
All of Badillo’s proposals easily fall within the liberal tradition in the United States. Many, in fact, are increasingly being embraced by the liberal Democrats he criticizes. There is a growing uneasiness among both parties with the issue of race and an emerging consensus that it is too divisive to the public discourse.
Despite this, Badillo’s over generalization about the lack of support for education by Latinos amounts to a negative stereotype that undermines his basic message. His sloppy documentation of the extent of the problem of Latino poverty and the dropout rate raises questions about the accuracy of his analysis and makes these problems appear much more insurmountable than they are. While he obviously wants to convey a positive message of hope, in the end he presents a picture that inspires despair and anger instead that is polarizing. Perhaps the book’s title should be changed to “One Nation, Polarized.”
Current Population Survey (2006), see this website:
Current Population Survey (2006a), see this website:
Greene, Jay p. and Marcus A. Winters, “Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991–2002: (New York: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Education Working Paper, No. 8, February 2005)
National Center for Education Statistics (2205), see this website:
National Research Council (2006), Multiple Origins, Uncertain Destines: Hispanics and the American Future (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press).
Angelo Falcón, a political scientist, is President and Founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy. He is an adjunct assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, and the author of the Atlas of Stateside Puerto Ricans and co-editor of Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans in the Making of Modern New York City.