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Brown Like Me?
The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos And Blacks And What It Means For America
by Ed Morales
March 8, 2004
Brown Like Me?
The Iowa Brown and Black Forum. There it was, superimposed on the bottom corner of the screen going to commercial break just after Al Sharpton tore into Howard Dean's affirmative-action hiring record. Hosted by MSNBC's Lester Holt, an African-American, and Maria Celeste Arraras, a Puerto Rican-born anchor for Telemundo, this last debate before the Iowa caucuses helped introduce a new phrase into the American political lexicon. Black and brown. "Do you have a senior member of your cabinet that was black or brown?" Sharpton prodded, and Dean turned red (again).
Although Sharpton and the Iowa group use this phrase to promote black-Latino unity, the first time I remember hearing it was when, on the occasion of the quincentennial of Columbus's journey to the Americas (and the aftermath of the Rodney King riots), The Atlantic Monthly published "Blacks vs. Browns," by LA Times reporter Jack Miles. In a significant challenge to the binary view of American racial politics, Miles uncovered the hidden truth about the riots, that there was substantial Latino involvement in what was widely portrayed as a black-and-white confrontation. Yet he did not regard this as evidence of an alignment of black and Latino interests. On the contrary, he predicted that "America's older black poor and newer brown poor are on a collision course."
According to Miles, the civil rights era coalition between blacks and Latinos was threatened by an emerging class conflict. Fearful of the "nihilistic" tendencies in black urban culture, he claimed, white and Asian employers were increasingly passing over poor blacks in favor of Latino immigrants, who were willing to work for lower wages. "Blacks are the most oppressed minority, but it matters enormously that whites are no longer a majority," wrote Miles. "And within the urban geography of Los Angeles, African-Americans seem to me to be competing more directly with Latin Americans than with any other group."
A year earlier, Charles Kamasaki and Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza had published a groundbreaking paper that corroborated Miles's argument. Yzaguirre and Kamasaki recounted several instances when African-American leaders had failed to support Latino causes. The NAACP opposed an extension of the Voting Rights Act that benefited Latinos in 1975, while the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights opposed a similar extension of the act in 1982. The NAACP declined to oppose employer sanctions under the Immigration Reform and Control Act; throughout the 1980s the LCCR was indifferent to increasing protection for Latinos against employment discrimination, while only nominally opposing the English-only movement. The paper concluded that "growing tension between the two communities...threatens the ability of blacks and Hispanics to develop strong, sustainable coalitions."
These ominous predictions are echoed in Nicolas C. Vaca's new book, The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America. But unlike Miles and Kamasaki and Yzaguirre, whose arguments he cites, Vaca, a lawyer and scholar based in the Bay Area, wants to posit the adversarial aspects of the relationship between blacks and Latinos as a fact of life. In making this argument, Vaca, who fancies himself a maverick, claims he is simply facing up to realities that Latino intellectuals and activists have sidestepped because of "knee-jerk," "politically correct" assumptions about black-Latino solidarity. He is so convinced of this that he lost an old Latino friend in a public argument over whether to write this book. "Why dig up dirt," writes Vaca, "ruffle feathers, destroy the illusion of unbroken unity between Blacks and Latinos, bleeding the colors of the Rainbow Coalition by giving the dreaded gringo the ammunition my former friend told me I was providing? The simple answer is that the ethnic landscape has changed."
Vaca's argument hinges on demographics, laid out in the opening chapter, "The Latino Tsunami: The Browning of America." He cites statistics that forecast exponential population growth, which will cast California and the Southwest in an increasingly "brown" hue by mid-century, and the related "hypergrowth" of Latino communities in areas like Atlanta and Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte, North Carolina, with the influx of new, mostly Mexican, immigrants. This demographic transformation will inexorably generate increasing conflict as Latinos--who have long been underrepresented in political office, in part because immigrants can't vote, and who have long felt their concerns are not taken seriously--seek representation equal to their numbers. In cities like Los Angeles, where African-Americans wield a measure of political power, blacks are increasingly digging in to resist a numerically superior brown rival.
In Chapter 3, "Who's the Leader of the Civil Rights Band?" Vaca analyzes the landmark case Mendez v. Westminster, which challenged the existence of separate schools for Mexican-Americans and "helped lay the groundwork for the ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education eight years later." By establishing a Latino claim to a history of oppression by white America, Vaca is also trying to establish that African-Americans were not the only pioneers of civil rights struggle, and that Latinos deserve a share of the movement's benefits. Unfortunately, he uses these arguments to blame another victim: The villains invariably turn out to be African-Americans, who are threatened by demographic changes and shut Latinos out of political office, while refusing to acknowledge that anyone's suffering could ever be as great as theirs. In the chapter "Somewhere Over the Rainbow Coalition," Vaca curiously draws from the Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton classic Black Power to argue that "feel-good statements" and an idealistic "squinty-eyed view" held by out-of-touch activists "does not square with what has happened in the real world." By invoking Carmichael and Hamilton's observation that different groups in a coalition will tend to act in their own interest, he is merely invoking a tautology that could be made about almost any political coalition. Vaca goes on to cite several studies showing that in Los Angeles, blacks often block Latinos from obtaining municipal employment. This competition is "one of many examples of how zero-sum conflict trumps any idealized notion of Latino-Black cooperation." But there is no discussion in this chapter of the private sector, either with respect to the hiring practices of small businesses or with respect to falling wages, which Latino immigrants are more likely to accept than African-Americans.
All of which is not to say that Vaca is entirely wrong. Although he doesn't take into account that Mexican-American citizens are also displaced in the job market by immigrants (including fellow Latinos), and that some established Mexican-Americans do not favor pro-immigration legislation, this conflict scenario accurately represents the Latino experience in the South and Southwest. Los Angeles has seen black-Latino political conflict (and cooperation) since the early days of the civil rights movement. Although the city's eighteenth-century founders were multiracial Mexicans of indigenous, African, Chinese and Spanish blood, LA has not elected a Latino mayor in more than a century, and blacks and Latinos have often voted for different candidates. The 1965 Watts riots, a predominantly African-American uprising, focused attention on the plight of black Angelenos but not on the barrios, while the black-Jewish liberal coalition that swept Tom Bradley into power further isolated Mexican-Americans from political power. An even greater rift developed when janitorial jobs, once the preserve of African-American union members, were turned over to nonunionized Mexican immigrants by unionbusting janitorial firms. Despite Antonio Villaraigosa's strong candidacy in the 2001 mayoral race, he was not able to draw enough black votes from James Hahn, a white liberal whose father was a favorite of African-Americans.
Vaca shows that the conflict between blacks and Latinos in California is historically rooted in a dynamic that is particular to that part of the country. After it was absorbed by the United States following the Mexican-American War, the Southwest's primary racial divide was between Anglos and Latinos (and to a lesser extent East Asians), with African-Americans coming into the mix later on, beginning in the 1930s. In Vaca's account of phenomena like segregated Mexican-American-only schools and the lynching of Mexican-Americans, African-Americans are portrayed as latecomers to the West's zero-sum battle for resources. That is to say, despite African-Americans' claim to primary "minority" status, "black suffering does not necessarily trump Latino suffering."
Vaca's argument is true as far as it goes--which isn't far at all. As he points out, Mexican-Americans make up about 60 percent of the total Latino population in the United States, and their experience in Los Angeles (particularly in the neighborhood of Compton) has been marked, at times, by tensions with African-Americans. But the question of black-brown relations is national in scope, and Vaca's analysis reflects a distinctly West Coast and ultimately parochial perspective. Chapters on black-Latino political strife in Los Angeles and Houston focus almost entirely on the Mexican-American version of Latino interests. In an attempt to counterbalance this, Vaca offers an analysis of black-Latino relations in Miami (a reverse-case scenario, where the white Cuban-American elite has historically refused to share public-sector power with African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans) and, in the book's least coherent chapter, of the 2001 mayoral race in Puerto Rican-dominated New York. Miami is clearly an aberrant case, because that city's Latino immigration was dominated by lighter-skinned members of Cuba's upper and middle classes fleeing Castro's revolution, and New York's complex ethnic politics, in which Latinos and blacks have entered into various coalitions with each other and with whites, is apparently beyond Vaca's expertise.
Although he rarely uses the word "brown" to describe Latinos, Vaca's assertion of a sharp separation between black and Latino is consistent with the "brown perspective" associated with a group of influential West Coast Latino writers. While it can serve as a useful color-coded signifier for being Latino, "brown" obscures the fact that Latinos come in the full spectrum of racial hues, very much including black. West Coast Brownologists like the essayist Richard Rodriguez and the LA Times commentator and New America Foundation fellow Gregory Rodriguez consistently categorize Latinos as distinctly separate from African-Americans, a third, mestizo, wheel in the American race dialogue. Although the Rodriguezes (no relation) are more diplomatic than Vaca in declaring that historic Latino suffering could never approach black suffering, the most important subtext in both writers' output is their effort to erect explicit barriers between blacks and Latinos.
Richard Rodriguez's concept of brown is, to be sure, semantically playful, invoking UPS's current ad campaign and sodomy in describing this "undermining brown motif, this erotic tunnel." Brown can be read here as the messy multiethnic muddle America is seemingly becoming through rising rates of Latino intermarriage, a utopian space from which, as the Mexican writer Jose Vasconcelos once suggested in his work La Raza Cosmica, humanity could launch its next great leap. In his recent book of essays, Brown, Rodriguez describes how growing up as an "honorary white" allowed him to escape linkages with the black culture of suffering. When a black professor at a public forum uses the phrase "blacks-and-Latinos" as a "synonym for the disadvantaged in America," Rodriguez recoils in discomfort. His most fervent desire for the African-Americans he has so much compassion for is "white freedom. The same as I wanted for myself." By this he means freedom from "culture" or "race," a desire expressed in various ways by ideologues like Ward Connerly and writers like Shelby Steele.
In his June 22, 2003, editorial in the LA Times Gregory Rodriguez went to great lengths to give African-Americans their due as the undisputed kings of suffering. "Even as Latinos exert growing influence on American politics and culture, blacks will continue to have a more powerful claim on America's moral imagination," he wrote. "Their history of slavery and segregation ensures that African-Americans will not be displaced in their role as the preeminent 'other' in U.S. society." But apparently this moral authority is directly proportional to the ability to inspire the kind of fear Jack Miles's Atlantic Monthly article evoked. "Latino immigrants generally do not instill the same fear among whites that blacks can. The social distance between brown and white has never been as great as that between black and white."
Well, that may be true, but what if you were one of the millions of Latinos who are not brown but actually black (a genetic condition given only passing reference by Brownologists), or even stranger, strongly identify with African culture regardless of skin tone? One doesn't have to look too far in US Latino letters to find representatives of this point of view. Witness Lisa Sanchez-Gonzalez's fascinating meditation, in Boricua Literature, in which she contrasts William Carlos Williams and Arturo Schomburg (both of Puerto Rican heritage) and the roles they played defining how Latinos have manifested themselves not just as brown but as "white" and "black" in America. Hip-hop, the most dynamic and commercially successful musical form in the world today, emerged as a joint creative effort between blacks and Latinos, as both Juan Flores's From Bomba to Hip-hop and Raquel Rivera's New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone have recently demonstrated. These texts are not merely evidence of "identification" with African-Americans but a reflection of a shared, lived experience engendered by the proximity of black and Latino neighborhoods in Northeastern cities and the Caribbean islands, as well as an acknowledgment of shared African genetic heritage. Pace Vaca, this shared history, though no guarantee of black-Latino solidarity, can translate into a set of overlapping political interests.
Call these writers the leading edge of the East Coast-based Caribbean alternative to the brown perspective on black-Latino relations, if you are daring enough or have the energy to accept even more categories in the increasingly complicated debate over race in America. One might argue that these works are merely part of a "Puerto Rican exception," to borrow a phrase from the neoconservative Linda Chavez, who used it to describe intractable Puerto Rican poverty in her notorious 1992 treatise Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. But although Puerto Ricans make up less than 10 percent of US Latinos (roughly 17 percent if you count island Puerto Ricans, all US citizens), and other Latin American countries with Afro-Caribbean affinities (including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba) only add another 5-7 percent, this perspective has always been crucial when examining the relations between blacks and Latinos in the United States. And the Puerto Rican experience formed a pattern that Dominicans are following, despite the fact that they entered this country as immigrants. One of the major projects recently proposed by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone is the creation of an Afro-Dominican cultural center in Washington Heights.
Vaca's take on New York's sometimes troubled black-Latino political coalitions in the chapter "The Big Manzana" starkly reveals the limitations of West Coast Brownology. Vaca concludes that mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer foolishly believed in the potential of a black-Latino coalition (which had elected David Dinkins in 1989), only to be betrayed by Al Sharpton, who withheld his support until the last minute, denying Ferrer his best chance. What Vaca fails to understand is that Ferrer had a history of shying away from African-American issues, and in part for this reason was never wholeheartedly embraced by the Puerto Rican community, a significant portion of which is black. Vaca recounts that Ferrer was strongly in the running until (a) the 9/11 terror attacks, which occurred the day of the scheduled Democratic primary, drove the city into the arms of minority-unfriendly Rudolph Giuliani; and (b) stepped-up mailings of a New York Post cartoon depicting Ferrer as a Sharpton puppet ruined him with white voters. While Vaca wrongly argues that Sharpton's refusal to help out a Latino is evidence that Ferrer was sabotaged by black self-interest (Sharpton initially demanded Ferrer's support for a slate of black candidates in exchange for his endorsement), the implication is that Ferrer's mistake was his attempt to appeal to black voters. Freddy violated the Brownologists' rule of keeping your distance.
Vaca's underlying project, it seems, is to free Latinos from any guilt they might feel about pursuing their own interests. Latinos, he argues in his conclusion, are not responsible for the plight of African-Americans. And, he adds, because Latinos are not responsible, they come to the table with a clear conscience. Latinos come from "another land, living a life apart from the black-and-white vision of the world described by Black literature." As Vaca points out, the Latin American idea of race was always more supple and nuanced than that of the United States. In Latin America, large communities of escaped and freed slaves were able to flourish, and with the abolition of slavery, Jim Crow laws were never adopted. While there is a grain of truth to the idea that Latin America's openness to racial mixing contrasts with the notorious "one-drop" rule in the United States, that doesn't mean its conscience is clear. Latin America was a major player in the slave trade, has a long legacy of antiblack attitudes, and Latinos often bring those attitudes with them when they come north. Slur words like mayate that refer to people of African descent and qualifiers like pelo malo (bad hair) did not originate in the United States. In fact, Afro-Latinos are beginning to organize in countries like Brazil, Colombia and Honduras to address government policies of benign neglect. Representatives Charles Rangel and John Conyers, with the support of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are pushing for an "Afro-Latino Resolution" asserting that US funding to Latin American countries should come with a provision recognizing the difficult economic and social conditions of the approximately 80-100 million Afro-Latinos.
In truth, the relations between blacks and Latinos have never been as plain as black and white, as Tatcho Mindiola, Yolanda Flores Niemann and Nestor Rodriguez show in their valuable work of analytic sociology, Black-Brown Relations and Stereotypes. The book's measured discussion of black-Latino relations in Houston, in which attitudes are revealed through extensive questionnaires, contrasts markedly with Vaca's inflammatory selection of anecdotes from a single article published in March 2001 in the Charlotte Post, in which blacks were quoted as saying things about Mexican immigrants like "they're taking all of our jobs...they could be plotting to kill you and you would never know." But the two groups have at times successfully worked together on the West Coast, and black-Latino relations in New York are never completely smooth. While researching a piece about Spanish Harlem last year, I encountered strains between African-American and Latino politicians fighting over whether to call the region East Harlem or Spanish Harlem. The Harlem political machine that propped up Dinkins has often outmaneuvered and sometimes sabotaged Latino pols. But whether or not you think Sharpton was posturing for influence, he did spend three months in jail over Vieques. And how do Vaca's theories hold up in Freehold, New Jersey, where a black Baptist church is providing sanctuary for Mexican immigrant day laborers whose case is being represented by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund? In the end, Brownologists like Vaca question the value of a brown-black alliance in the same way many mestizos in Latin America distinguish themselves from blacks.
The Brownologists' excitement is fueled by an explosion of immigrants who are willing to work long, hard hours and who, unlike US citizen Puerto Ricans, are not eligible for welfare. But as anyone who has studied inner-city youth or picked up a copy of Urban Latino magazine knows, after a few generations many Latinos start to look more and more like African-Americans. It's in places like Chicago, with its mix of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and blacks, and Spanish Harlem, whose demographics are beginning to resemble Chicago's, that much of the work of black-Latino relations will be done. As NYU professor Arlene Davila says in her forthcoming book, Barrio Dreams, "the relationship between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans...echoes that of Blacks and Puerto Ricans, at least in regards to a history of cooperation and competition." Aren't we always cooperating and competing with everyone we love?
Migration to the United States has allowed many darker-skinned or Afro-Latinos (primarily from the Caribbean, but increasingly from South America) to embrace an African identity that was suppressed in their native countries. The fiction of Dominican-Americans like Nelly Rosario and Junot Diaz, and of Puerto Ricans like Edgardo Vega Yunque and Piri Thomas, is part of a new understanding of Latino identity that could not have formed in the postcolonial culture of Latin America. When Richard Rodriguez, referring to the probability that most African-Americans have white blood in their genetic history, declares that "the last white freedom in America will be the freedom of the African American to admit brown," I can only wonder, when will the Brownologists be free to admit black?
Of course, racial cross-identification is only a preliminary step in the difficult process of creating and maintaining political alliances between oppressed groups. Vaca's book might be helpful in clearing the ground for future cooperation between blacks and Latinos by acknowledging points of contention. But the book is more likely to have the effect of reinforcing what generations of immigrants have been taught: that estrangement from blackness is the key to success in America.
Ed Morales, a Latin music columnist for Newsday, is the author of Living in Spanglish (St. Martin's) and The Latin Beat (Da Capo).