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'It'd be helpful if they'd been Latino': What was Romney really expressing?

Mitt Romney speaks at a fundraiser in Dallas on Tuesday.
Mitt Romney speaks at a fundraiser in Dallas on Tuesday.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

A comment made earlier this year by Mitt Romney about his family's roots in Mexico is drawing some heated reactions, and it's not because he declared himself Mexican American (he didn't).

In the by now famous "secret video" made of Romney speaking during a fundraiser in May in Boca Raton, Fla., Romney digs into his heritage like this: dad, you probably know, was the governor of Michigan and was the head of a car company, but he was born in Mexico. And had he been born of Mexican parents I'd have a better shot at winning this, but he was [audience laughs] unfortunately born of Americans living in Mexico. They'd lived there for a number of years, and, uh, I mean I say that jokingly, but it'd be helpful if they'd been Latino…

That's from a transcript of the video as posted this week by Mother Jones; the video can be viewed/heard here.

There haven't been any Latinos that have come close to the White House, of course. Romney, the descendant of Mormons from the United States who migrated to Mexico in the 19th century, is as close at it gets.

But what was Romney really expressing? In a more famous snippet from the same video, he talks about "the 47 percent" of Americans that he desribes as being "dependent upon government" and having a sense of entitlement. In cracking that "it'd be helpful" had his family been Latino, is Romney communicating that Latinos benefit from special entitlements, a sentiment toward people of color that has long resonated among some Americans as the nation's demographics change? Here is how CNN's Ruben Navarrette framed it:

First, judging from the videotape, when Romney suggested that his path to the White House would have been covered in rose petals if only he had been born Mexican, the crowd loved it. What are they thinking?

Are these the kind of people who tell themselves that their sons and daughters would have gotten into Yale or Princeton if some black kid hadn't taken their spot? Do they really believe that racial and ethnic minorities have it easy in this country?

His opinion piece concludes: 

Romney sounds frustrated. By suggesting that he'd have a better chance at winning this election if he were Latino, Romney is playing the victim. Poor me, I had the misfortune to be born a white male.

Touchy stuff. In the transcript, immediately after Romney makes the "helpful" comment, an audience member yells, "Pull an Elizabeth Warren!" Romney goes on:

That's right. Those that don't know Elizabeth Warren—she's the woman who's running for US Senate in Massachusetts, who said that she's Cherokee, has put in her application over the years that she's Cherokee, and Harvard put down that she's one of their minority faculty members. It turns out that at most she's 1/32 Cherokee, and even that can't be proven. So, in any event, yeah, I can put down my dad was born in Mexico and leave it at that.

For the record, Romney's ancestors migrated in the 1880s from the U.S. to the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. His grandfather and father were born in Chihuahua but retained U.S. citizenship, likely because Mexican laws at the time forbid them from becoming citizens. They returned to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution, when his father George Romney was a child. The elder Romney went on to win state office, but during an unsuccessful run for the White House in 1968, questions arose over whether being born in Mexico, even to U.S. citizen parents, might disqualify him.

Now it's your turn. What do you think Romney was communicating, or trying to communicate, in his statement about his heritage?