Critics slam The Economist for 'racist' article calling Latin American workers 'useless'

A recent article published in The Economist has drawn online backlash after its headline and heading characterized Latin American workers as "useless" and "unproductive."

"It's racist, it's incendiary, it's insulting," Alexander Aviña, an associate professor of history at Arizona State University, told NBC News in a phone interview.

The story, published Thursday in the London-based magazine that covers global and economic affairs, focuses on why Latin America, according to World Bank figures, is the world's slowest-growing regional economy. The article posited various factors, including governments' lack of investment in education, limited competition, a large informal economy and corruption.

The Economist office in New York.
The Economist office in New York. The magazine drew backlash over what many considered a racist, insulting headline that played on stereotypes.Google Maps

But scholars, journalists and historians pushed back online that the article's heading — “A land of useless workers,” and the headline, “Why are Latin American workers so strikingly unproductive?” played into racist tropes of Latin American workers as lazy.

"If you look at some of the U.S. press in the 19th century, even into the 20th century, they would talk about Mexicans having the quote-unquote mañana habit and that explains the lack of development and productivity to characterize Mexico," Aviña said.

"Having followed The Economist for a really long time, they know what they're doing," he said. "There's a click-baity aspect to this title and this argument and the subtitle but, nonetheless, it's still, I think, incredibly insulting, objectively inaccurate on a variety of levels, and I think it's racist."

Aida Velasco, the consul for political affairs and education at the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles, tweeted that it was an "unfortunate" headline that was "full of stereotypes."

Ignacio Sánchez Prado, a professor of Latin American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a phone interview that "there is an existing framework that disparages Latin American countries to stereotypes ... pieces like this feed from that representation."

In Sánchez Prado's opinion, the article doesn't address the history of past economic policies, some even endorsed by the magazine, that have contributed to undermining economic conditions in Mexico and Latin America.

The Economist updated some of the article's language Friday to "A land of frustrated workers."

Following the backlash, the publication issued an editor's note clarifying the intent behind the original title, stating: "The original headline in this article attracted criticism for the phrase 'A land of useless workers'. We have changed it to make clear that we are analysing the social and economic costs of low productivity.

"Our aim is to draw attention to the structural causes of low average labour productivity in Latin American countries, including powerful oligopolies that mute competition and a large informal sector which forces many businesses to remain subscale," the editor's note continued.


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