Herman: LBJ and Hispanic Heritage Month
Sep 23, 2015
By Ken Herman
Originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman
Sept. 22, 2015
As I heard his daughter Luci remind us at a recent local event, we’re in the midst of 50th anniversaries for many major and landmark moments in Lyndon B. Johnson’s pivotal presidency, a tenure that, for all its controversy, ushered America into a new era.
This month, however, we’re only in the 47th anniversary of a Johnson action that presaged a crucial change in American demographics that remains underway today.
On Sept. 17, 1968, Johnson, who had taught in a Hispanic school in the South Texas town of Cotulla, issued Proclamation 3869 establishing National Hispanic Heritage Week.
“It is with special pride,” he proclaimed, “that I call the attention of my fellow citizens to the great contributions to our national heritage made by our people of Hispanic descent — not only in the fields of culture, business and science, but also through their valor in battle.”
Though Johnson had first-hand knowledge of the growth and struggles of Hispanics, it’s doubtful he could have grasped the changes that Hispanics would bring to the U.S. in the almost half-century since his proclamation.
His signature back then sealed the deal on a congressional resolution setting “the week including Sept. 15 and 16 as National Hispanic Heritage Week.” The week was chosen because five of our “Central American neighbors celebrate their Independence Day on the 15th of September and the Republic of Mexico on the 16th.”
By 1989, Hispanic influence on our country outgrew a weeklong event, and Congress expanded it to a month — Sept. 15 to Oct. 16. Now that we’re in that month, the Census Bureau folks are noting some numbers that quantify the obvious: The U.S. is changing before our eyes as it undergoes yet another demographic shift.
The strength of the U.S. depends heavily on its ability to benefit from such shifts. We’ve done it in the past.
Donald Trump aside — and the sooner we can put him there the better — our country now is as good as it’s ever been about dealing with demographic change. At the least, it’s generally less acceptable to be openly racist or xenophobic these days. At best, we understand the need to give Hispanics every chance to succeed, including offering Spanish-language options for those it helps.
I have an elderly family member who appreciates the difference this way: “When I was young, you never heard ‘Dial 2 for Yiddish.’”
According to the census folks, the Hispanic population in the U.S. was 55 million as of July 1, 2014. That’s 17 percent of the total population, and it’s growing rapidly. Projections show the Hispanic population will hit 119 million in 2060, which would make it almost 29 percent of the total population.
More than half (55 percent) of the nation’s Hispanic population as of July 1, 2014, was in California, Florida and Texas. Harris County, which includes Houston, had the nation’s largest increase in Hispanic residents from 2013 to 2014.
Those are the raw numbers. The census also gave us some important comparative ones, statistics that show the challenge ahead as this important shift evolves.
Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic married-couple households had children younger than 18, compared with 40 percent for the overall population. That’s yet another number that tells us something about future demographics.
A positive number is the stat showing that 65 percent of Hispanic kids live with two parents, compared with 69 percent in the overall population. A related stat that gives me great pause is the one showing that only 39 percent of African-American children under 18 live with both parents.
And we don’t need census stats to tell us the obvious: Hispanics don’t vote, get educated or escape poverty in sufficient proportions. We have to do better on all three of those areas. Those are participatory activities. It’s not enough to demand voting rights. You have to vote. It’s not enough to demand better schools. You have to support education at home and get your kids to school. Better education is the best path out of poverty.
LBJ got it right those many years ago when he proclaimed the important contributions Hispanics have made in the past. Our nation’s future depends heavily on the contributions yet to come.