How Latinos Can Help End Racism in America

I suppose I was one of the 82 percent of Latinos not following the events in Ferguson all that closely. But it wasn’t due to lack of sympathy for the black boy shot and killed in cold blood by one of Ferguson’s finest, or a lack of understanding as to why it happened. I saw the headlines and knew what it was.

I knew another black boy had been killed by another cop. I knew another black body had been deemed disposable by the powers that be. I knew the system would try to justify another one of its public executions by suggesting Michael Brown deserved it, that he had threatened an agent of the law and, thus, was a threat to the society that the law is meant to serve and protect.

Yes, I knew all of this, which is why I couldn’t bear to see the whole callous tragedy played out as scripted, yet again. So I kept my mind busy with other things. I wrote on recent events in Honduras and Brazil, and added several thousand words to my short novel.

But soon, almost inevitably, the role of Latinos came into the media’s focus, as much of America began wondering what the country’s largest minority group had to say about the scenes being broadcast from Ferguson.

First there was a Pew study showing that, in terms of their views on racial issues, Latinos are much more like whites than blacks. Immediately the charge was refuted by self-appointed representatives of the Latino cluster, as artists and activists took to their laptops to ardently insistent on Latinos’ solidarity with the black people of Ferguson and, by association, all black people in the United States.

One of these passionate little commentaries was even published under the ambitious and presumptive title “Yes, Latinos Do Care About Ferguson,” which I’m sure a lot of you saw, retweeted or even read. When you take a moment to think about what the title is claiming, you realize the statement “Latinos do care about Ferguson” can’t be true for apparent reasons.

Before I go on, I think it’s best to clarify what the title means to say. It does not mean Latinos care about a small town in St. Louis County, Missouri. That would be sweet but ridiculous. What the title means to say, which seems pretty clear, is that Latinos care about what happens to black people in America. Therefore, a less ambiguous translation of the title would be “Latinos do care about black people.”

Yet, even when chiseled down and made more direct, the title is no less dishonest.

It’s obvious that some Latinos care about black people, because some Latinos are in fact black people themselves. I myself am one of those Latinos. Maybe you’re one of those Latinos too, or you know one or two or ten. Members of my family have called me “Negrito” since I was in the first grade. I used to think, because they were dark-skinned, that the Puerto Rican side of my family was mostly Taíno, until I realized that my father looked like Bill Cosby, and I looked like Roberto Clemente (whose blackness I’d never questioned), and that there were no Taínos — or at least not enough of them left for the odds to suggest I could be one myself.

There’s plenty of European blood in me, on my mother’s side specifically, for me to pass as a Latino or an Arab or any other non-black category during the more cloudy months of the year. Once May swings around, however, my inner africano steams to the surface, and I maneuver through society as a black man til September, sometimes November. The strangers who meet me in July and don’t think I’m black seem to do so on the bases of my Spanish name and my nose, which people have complimented me on for being narrower than what they’re used to seeing on a person of my skin color, I assume.

That black Latinos have more than one mask to wear is one of the reasons why Latino blackness is unlike typical blackness in America, which is the kind of blackness most black people wear year round, day in and day out. My skin color is not the lingering memento of the fear, the pain and the dehumanization inflicted on my forebears that a typical black person’s skin is, because my skin signifies, and I know it to be the case, that I’m only partly of African descent, namely through my father’s father.

My ancestors in Latin America and Europe survived their own trials and tribulations, to be sure. But I’m also sure not one of their ordeals was as utterly destructive to the human spirit as the extra-brutal kind of chattel slavery imposed on blacks in the United States, or the kind of second-class citizenship imposed on black people to this day.

Not only must we address the reality that some Latinos are also black people, we must also face the fact that too many Latinos are themselves anti-black.

Writing for a Latino site like this one, it seems unnecessary to delve into the various ways in which anti-black sentiments have endured within Latino ranks. We all have families, don’t we? We all have tíos or titis with a few choice words for their black neighbor or coworker. We all have parents who worry about the black friend we’ve been hanging out with lately or the black lover we’re getting serious with. And need I even mention the beloved viejitos in our families, who pull us aside at a gathering to tell us something that sounds like it could’ve been written in an Aryan pamphlet?

The existence of Latino white supremacists shouldn’t surprise anyone. Though it’s been perfected nowhere more than here in the United States, white racism is not the exclusive domain of English speakers.

Toward the tail end of the Islamic conquest of Iberia, as they were driving the heathens into the sea, the white Christians of Spain and Portugal sought to distinguish themselves from the Muslim Moors and the Jewish Sephardim by asserting the superiority of white Christian blood. They referred to it, appropriately enough, as limpieza de sangre, cleanliness of the blood. Thereafter, an Iberian with a Muslim grandparent, or even a Muslim great-great-grandparent, was considered tainted.

The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores exported this belief to the Americas, a land they claimed to have discovered, even though it might have already been home to, by some accounts, nearly 20 million natives by the time ol’ Columbus landed in the Bahamas. Very quickly a caste system was set up to preserve the power and privilege of the white minority living amongst the natives, the Africans and the mixed-bloods.

That caste system has persisted to this day, politically and psychologically. It reveals itself, for example, in the racial inequality that grips Brazil, in the Honduran government’s attack on the Afro-Caribbean Garinagu, in the mistreatment of native peoples from Chiapas to Chile, and in the anti-black policies of Dominicans denying the rich African blood coursing through their own veins.

White supremacy is as much a part of Latin America as the Spanish language and Jesus Christ, and for exactly the same reasons. So who would fool themselves into believing that many Latinos haven’t brought their racist ideology here along with their recipes and music, especially when it pays much more to be white in America than it does in the old country?

In light of all this, it’s clear that if a Latino does care about the black people in Ferguson and elsewhere, they care for one of two reasons: either they’re black themselves and are concerned with the plight of other black people; or they’re not black but, like most decent people, are able to sympathize with the abused, whatever their color may be.

There are some Latinos, however, who are watching the events in Ferguson very closely, but for an entirely different reason. They’re keeping an eye on it because, as non-blacks, they benefit from the evil racist machinery whose gears are greased by the blood of black boys. And they don’t want that machinery stopped or slow down.

The rest of the Latino cluster are like most Americans in that they either don’t know the history of institutional racism in this country, are too lazy to learn it, are too distracted to learn it, or too busy to. We better hope they learn that history. We better hope more Latinos care about the black people of Ferguson, just like we better hope more white people care and more of everybody cares. Because it’s not just about Ferguson or black people. It’s about everybody — you, me and every other person living in this country.

America claims to be a lot of things, but it’s one thing for certain: it’s a vast collection of humanity from all over the globe and all walks of life being forced to share one land for the sake of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some of us came with luggage. Others were shipped here like sardines. Some of us came for opportunity. Others fled violence and hopelessness. Nonetheless, we’re all here now.

The Founders may have only concerned themselves with securing the lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness of wealthy white men, but today women, people of color and LGBTs look to expand that vision of America.

At present, the United States has yet to get over the fact that it entered this world and grew strong in it as a slave society, if only for the fact that it still is a slave society. They added an amendment in 1865 and passed a civil rights act almost a century later, but the widespread captivity of black bodies by today’s criminal justice system belies even the insinuation that black liberty has ever been squared with white liberty. And if the wanton destruction of black bodies at the hands of police officers — who are no more than modern-day slave drivers — tells us anything, it’s that, after 400 years, the power that designed and controls this nation still refuses to consider black bodies even remotely equal to white bodies.

Latinos have flung themselves into this red-white-and-blue furnace for the chance at better lives, and now at the start of a new millenium, they stand ready to add their metal to fire. As the Latino population continues to grow, eventually overcoming whites as the largest ethnic group in the United States, how Latinos address the race question may be a deciding factor in whether it’s resolved at all.

Neither a race or even a community, the Latino cluster is poised to chuck America’s age-old black-white antagonism onto the proverbial garbage heap, but only if Latinos themselves can summon the will to cast out the bigotry rotting away at their own bonds. The sooner Latinos stop putting a premium on white skin, the sooner white Latinos stop seeing black Latinos as other and start seeing them as brother, the sooner they can help the rest of America do it. And everywhere you look — Ferguson, Chicago, D.C., New York, Detroit — it’s obvious America desperately needs help.

The United States will either become a truly multicultural society or tear itself to shreds. It’ll either grant freedom and respect to all its people, or it’ll choke on its own hatred and cruelty. Black, white, Latino, Asian, Arab, Native American — all must lend their hands to the dismantling of the old America and put their backs into the elevation of a new America, one in which people are allowed to be different but are treated equally under the law.

Then, and only then, will every inhabitant of this nation finally become a true citizen of it, with intolerance and injustice toward none.

[Photo: Cuauhtemoc-Hidalgo Villa-Zapata via Flickr]

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