When the current state of relations between African-Americans and Latinos is brought up in public forums and media outlets, a picture of deeply rooted tensions and hostility is often painted. Often mentioned are one group’s negative stereotypes about the other, inner city (and now suburban) gang or political turf battles, and competition for jobs and scarce resources between native and foreign-born.
TheGrio’s Shamara Riley called the black-brown alliance a “one-sided deal,” criticizing black leaders for siding with Latino activists and civil rights groups over Arizona’s recently passed SB 1070, a controversial measure giving police the authority to question one’s legal status based on the ambiguous notion of “reasonable suspicion.”
However, numbers from a nationwide NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo poll suggest an apparent shift from myth to potential reality in the struggle for black/brown alliances. Apparently, 59 percent of African-Americans said that immigration strengthens the U.S., compared to 28 percent who believe the opposite, figures similar to those of Latinos but more favorable than whites.
WATCH: PROFESSOR ALAN AJA SAYS BLACKS AND LATINOS SHARE HISTORY
In 2005, the same pollsters found (albeit with a larger sample size) that 41percent of African-Americans said immigration strengthened the US economy, compared to 46 percent who said it weakens it. A year later, a 2006 Pew Research Center study illustrated that African-Americans held more sympathetic views toward immigrants as compared to whites, even though they were more likely than whites to feel that immigrants take away their jobs.
While the evidence may be viewed as an improvement in relations between African-Americans and Latinos, there are particular challenges both groups must overcome to bridge existing divides. First, African-Americans and Latinos must realize that they share common historical trajectories.
After mass genocide of the Caribbean indigenous population by European colonialists, the first peoples kidnapped from Africa as forced labor were brought to islands then-known as Quisqueya (Haiti/Dominican Republic), Cubanacan (Cuba), Borinquen (Puerto Rico) and others. Over a period of nearly 400 years, whether surviving under the violence of Spanish or English colonialism throughout the Americas, both groups’ ancestors were subject to slavery, divisive caste systems, bounded labor, the eventual confiscation of land and assets (if any). African-Americans paid a price via flesh and blood, as did many of the Indigenous and African descendants of present-day Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos and other people of color before their lands were invaded and colonized by Europeans and the US respectively. The legacies of these structures of oppression still rear their ugly head today, evidenced by unequal public education, environmental racism, persistent poverty, health disparities, and racial gaps in wealth.
Second, within the Latino community, “passing on blackness” (as Darity, Hamilton and Dietrich, 2002, call it) denies our diverse roots, further distancing us from African-Americans, including darker-skinned members of our own group. A 2003 study on Latinos by “race” by John Logan found that self-identified “white” Latinos exhibit higher incomes and educational levels than those that identify as “Other” or “Black.” Other scholars have also noted that white Latinos are more likely to live in proximity to non-Hispanic whites and particular Asian groups with better access to the primary labor market, meanwhile darker-skinned Latinos are more likely to live alongside African-Americans (albeit segregated), competing for low-wage jobs in an already-volatile economy.
This reality is largely a product of the Latin American caste system, which afforded people with perceived “European” features greater access to the upper echelons of society. Moreover, through the historical process of annexation and immigration, this phenomenon clashed with America’s more segregationist, “one-drop” rule philosophy and practice, which kept power and privilege away from the hands of Native Americans and African-Americans.
Third, while labor market studies do suggest that African-American may lose first in the hiring queues of low wage jobs to exploitable immigrants, so do native-born, sometimes 4th and 5th generation Latinos and Asians, people whose roots are tied back to the country’s expansionism. Historically, when we had the opportunity to absorb African-Americans and other groups of color into the mainstream, we didn’t. During Reconstruction we imported immigrants from Europe rather than integrating African-Americans and Mexican-Americans into the mainstream economy, implementing Jim Crow laws and using violent tactics like lynching to prevent potential coalitions. Decades later, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed, we changed our racist pro-European immigration laws to family and skill-based preferences, unintentionally leading to an influx of Asians and Latin Americans into the country.
Today’s minority newcomers, especially post-1965 immigrants and their children who may now self-identify as Hispanic/Latino, Black/African-American or Asian, are not absolved from the problems and concerns of other fellow minority groups, which affect ALL people of color. The “my ancestors didn’t oppress you” line is the same argument used by privileged whites to ignore their status as beneficiaries of a past and present system of American racial apartheid.
In essence, the most effective tool to combating shared systematic inequalities must come via creative forms of joint collective action. For example, the Chicano student-led “blowouts” of 1968, which sought to bring equal education to poor urban communities, were largely inspired by the efforts of Rosa Parks, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Dolores Huerta and the boycotts, sit-ins and marches of the Civil Rights movement. At the same time, Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) may not have been possible without earlier court cases like Alvarez vs. Lemon Grove School District (1931) and Mendez vs. Westminster (1946), which were led by Mexican-American parents challenging segregationist policies in public school districts.
Today, an inter-group coalition of clergy, labor leaders, educators, students and workers of all colors are working to combat Arizona’s recent legalization of racial profiling to determine immigrant status (SB 1070), as well as the ongoing attacks on ethnic studies (see Arizona’s HB 2281 and similar measures in Texas). Likewise, to achieve progressive immigration reform beneficial to both communities, African-Americans can support Latinos, Asians and other groups with immigrant family members by pushing for a path to legalization via amnesty rather than supporting draconian measures that tears families apart and ostracizes American citizens (the majority of Latino were born in the US).
In return, Latinos should support the strict enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (non-discrimination clause) amongst employers who pass up blacks (and Latinos of color) in the hiring queues of all dimensions of the labor market. This should be couple by a joint call for living wage legislation and further unionization. As Dr. King’s soul constantly reminds us “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” thus the time is ripe for the black-brown alliance.