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Is Discrimination Against Latinos Getting More Costly?

In a syndicated newspaper column headlined “A No-Hit Game for Me,” the “60 Minutes” show-stopper Andy Rooney was expressing his dislike for the current state of baseball. He wrote:

I know all about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but today’s baseball stars are all guys named Rodriguez to me. They’re apparently very good but they haven’t caught my interest.

Does that first sentence seem inherently incendiary to you? Your answer probably depends on your own background and heritage. There are in fact a lot of Rodriguezes in MLB, but Rooney was promptly charged with anti-Latino racism. The Times article on the subject, by Maria Aspan, said, however, that “Rooney’s editor did not think the comment touched Imus territory.”

Why not? There are probably a lot of reasons, including the fact that Imus trafficks in harder-edged putdowns than Rooney. But there’s also the question of how costly it is to discriminate against different groups of people.

In “Freakonomics,” we wrote a bit about discrimination on the TV game show “The Weakest Link.” The section was based on a Journal of Law and Economics paper by Levitt arguing that contestants didn’t seem to discriminate against blacks and women, but there was evidence of discrimination against Latinos and the elderly. Why? We make the case that discrimination against blacks and women over the past few decades became more socially unacceptable, and therefore more costly. Discrimination against the elderly and Latinos, meanwhile, is still relatively cheap, in that it is generally not penalized very harshly. When was the last time you heard of someone losing his talk show because he made fun of old people?

Based on the blowback to Rooney’s column, it looks like the cost of anti-Latino discrimination may be rising. It’s interesting to think what the response would have been if Rooney had complained that there are too many baseball players with names like Matsuzaka and Okajima. (I am guessing we wouldn’t have read about it at all.) Or, switching arenas for a minute, what if Rooney wrote a column about the history of Wall Street and said he liked Wall Street just fine until all the Goldmans and Blankfeins started running things? (I think we would have read about that one quite a bit, and Rooney might be packing up his CBS office.)

If indeed the Rooney story is evidence that discrimination against Latinos is getting more costly, here’s another recent example that may provide further evidence. The University of Texas journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez successfully lobbied PBS to include more Latino experiences in the forthcoming Ken Burns mega-series “The War,” charging that an early version gave short shrift to Latino-American participants.

One last and more significant question: will anyone read any anti-Latino sentiment into yesterday’s resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? Here’s a quote from President Bush: “It’s sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud.” Would the outcome had been any different if Gonzales were white or black? Does the President believe that it was easier to drag a “Gonzales” through the mud than some other name?

For the record, there are an awful lot of MLB players named Gonzalez too, although unlike A.G., they spell their name with a “z” at the end, not an “s.”