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Morality Play Stays the Same

Latinos are now the No. 1 U.S. minority but lack the historical claims of blacks.

June 22, 2003|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at New America Foundation.

Last week's headlines touting Latinos' new status as the nation's largest minority implied a demographic competition between blacks and Hispanics. Depending on what newspaper you read, blacks have been "eclipsed," "overtaken" or "surpassed" by Hispanics. But the perceived conflict is more a reflection of white America's ambivalent relationship with African Americans than it is of an actual game of demographic one- upmanship between the nation's two largest minorities. 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. 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.

Black identity was forged in the uniform oppression that whites imposed on slaves who descended from an array of distinct African ethnic and tribal groups. Conversely, white identity, which includes groups as distinct as English, Jewish and Armenian Americans, has historically been defined in contradistinction to blackness. For years, the definition of a white person was simply someone who was not black. Black and white identities are inseparable. As a single black identity emerged fully, it became a constant reminder to whites of America's original sin.

"The identity of the American Negro comes out of this extreme situation," wrote James Baldwin in "Notes of a Native Son," "and the evolution of this identity was a source of the most intolerable anxiety in the minds and the lives of his masters."

The challenge that blacks have presented to them has always led native-born whites to favor immigrants and their children over the descendants of slaves. Despite the harsh treatment many immigrants have often received, the newcomers did not serve as inconvenient reminders of a sordid past. Columbia University historian Ann Douglas has written that in the early 20th century, harsh anti-immigrant sentiment also had the paradoxical effect of making immigrants more eager to see blacks as their social inferiors. Though contemporary Latinos and blacks are routinely lumped together in the same category and expected to find common cause, it is clear that whites do not view each group through the same lens.

"There are some whites who would like to swap blacks for Hispanics," says Debra Dickerson, author of the forthcoming book "The End of Blackness." "With Hispanics, whites don't feel any guilt. In fact, I think they would refuse Hispanic attempts to make them feel guilty."

In fact, advocates eager to attract more attention to Latinos have never had much success securing a claim on white America's moral conscience. In 1990, a former Ford Foundation program officer bemoaned the fact that Latinos "lacked a history of slavery, a powerful tool that had galvanized white guilt." The legacy of black slavery and segregation, and the recrimination that followed, are central to how white America views itself. Despite the anti-immigrant sentiment they sometimes face, 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.

"Our modus operandi is to be activist," says Jarrette Fellows Jr., the publisher of Beyond Urbia, a black political magazine. "Whites know that the new Latinos are not going to rock the boat."

Although many minority activists have been eager to create a rainbow coalition, the lumping of blacks and immigrants may actually work to the disadvantage of African Americans.

"Cozying up to Hispanics can help whites show how tolerant they are," says Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty. "Someone who hates the idea of hiring blacks can say, 'Hey, look how many Hispanics I have.' "

But white society's relative comfort with Latino immigrants is not only a matter of guilt. It is also about race. The Census Bureau categorizes African Americans as a racial group, meaning that they are primarily defined by shared physiological characteristics. Hispanics are considered an ethnicity, a group whose boundaries are drawn by a shared history, culture, language or religion. Throughout U.S. history, ethnic differences have been more successfully negotiated than racial ones.

Like other ethnics, Latinos were never subjected to the "one-drop rule," in which the offspring of black-white unions automatically took on the racial identity of the lower caste. The one-drop rule not only forged two rigidly defined groups, but it eliminated the taint of African ancestry from the white population. It allowed white America to pretend that extensive miscegenation had not actually occurred since the earliest days of U.S. history.

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