The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


History Behind the Headlines: Tom Brokaw and Assimilation

On Sunday, former anchor of “NBC Nightly News” Tom Brokaw indicated that Hispanics aren’t doing enough to assimilate into American culture.

Brokaw, who now serves as a special correspondent for NBC since his retirement in 2004, appeared as part of a panel on the network’s weekly political roundtable, “Meet the Press.” During a discussion about President Trump’s efforts to gain funding for and build a wall across the U.S. southern border, Brokaw said, “Hispanics should work harder at assimilation. That’s one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time.” Brokaw also went on to say that Hispanic children should learn to speak English.

White House correspondent for “PBS NewsHour” and former New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor, who was also on the panel, responded, “You’re talking about assimilation. I grew up in Miami, where people speak Spanish, but their kids speak English. And the idea that we think Americans can only speak English, as if Spanish and other languages wasn’t always part of America, is, in some ways, troubling.”

The backlash was swift with many taking to Twitter to criticize Brokaw. Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro wrote, “For a celebrated journalist who spent years chronicling American society you seem stunningly ignorant of the Hispanic community in this country. Unfortunate to see xenophobia pass for elevated political commentary.”

Castro went on to tweet that “Spanish was literally beaten out of children” in the 1950s. In 2017, NPR spoke to Texas residents Maggie Marquez and Jessi Silva who attended a segregated school in the 1950s in the rural town of Marfa. According to Marquez and Silva, their school held a burial for the Spanish language and, later that same day, Marquez was paddled for telling friends in Spanish “Nobody’s gonna stop me from speaking Spanish,” within earshot of a teacher.

Similarly, in 1879 when the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in Pennsylvania, school officials taught the Native children English, dressed them in Western-style clothes, and tried to convert them to Christianity. All this required taking children away from their families, often by force, and often across great distances. In a 2017 episode of BackStory, host Brian Balogh spoke with Tsianina Lomawaima, who is Muskogee and an Indigenous Studies scholar at Arizona State University. Lomawaima’s dad and older brother were placed at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, located on the Kansas-Oklahoma state line.

Lomawaima said her father, who was eight at the time, “did not take well to the military discipline and the attempt to eradicate individuality.” Her father took to running away frequently, mainly because he missed his mom. Eventually, the long separations led to an estrangement between the mother and son that never really resolved.

Brokaw was also taken to task for what many interpreted as a non-apology when he first acknowledged the criticism via a tweet Sunday evening that read, “I feel terrible a part of my comments on Hispanics offended some members of that proud culture.” The National Association of Hispanic Journalists responded in a press release that stated they “reprehend both the commentary and apology by journalist, Tom Brokaw, as well as the lack of response by NBC News to the inaccurate representation of Hispanics’ need to ‘assimilate,’  comments by Brokaw on the Meet the Press segment with Chuck Todd.”

BackStory explored the idea of assimilation and what it means to become American in “The Melting Pot: Americans & Assimilation.” Take a listen to learn why the 19th-century notions of who could become an American and the ways they were expected to change persist in the U.S.

About History Behind The Headlines: When breaking news and history collide, BackStory brings the context. This new blog feature takes trending news items and, whenever possible, offers BackStory host commentary or segments from previous episodes that provide a historical viewpoint.


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