Conversely, Latinos, particularly Mexicans, who are largely of mixed European and Indian ancestry, have sometimes benefited from the recognition of their partly white heritage. Though Mexicans were historically not accepted as full equals, their part-European ancestry made it more difficult to justify their subjugation. In the 19th century, Mexicans' mixed-blood lineage helped them acquire U.S. citizenship when it was denied to Indians, blacks and Chinese.
The many anti-miscegenation statutes that prohibited intermarriages between white Americans and other racial groups were generally not enacted against Mexicans. The instances in which Mexicans were tried for miscegenation were those in which the courts deemed that the Mexican American in question was white. Categorized as whites but long treated as nonwhites, Mexicans -- and later other Hispanics -- have occupied an "in-between" and somewhat fluid status in America's racial order.
The underlying heterogeneity of the generic terms "Latino" or "Hispanic" and the regional concentrations of groups of different national origins -- Puerto Ricans in the Northeast, Cubans in the Southeast and Mexicans in the Southwest -- also make black and Latino comparisons misleading.
Though different Latino groups do share a loosely knit overarching identity, it is clearly subordinate to the identities based on national origin. A recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center found that U.S. Latinos are much more likely to identify themselves by country of origin than as a Latino or Hispanic. Their diverse origins, plus the absence of a collectively shared history in the U.S., ensure that Latinos will never be as cohesive a group as African Americans.
"There is something unique to the black/white relationship," says Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, a Los Angeles-based human relations organization and a former regional director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "It will always be the barometer for how we treat the 'other' in America."
In 1903, W.E.B Du Bois wrote of blacks' contribution to the development of American culture. "Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation," he stated. As Latinos continue to infuse some of their distinctiveness into the melting pot, they are simultaneously assimilating a culture that has -- from the beginning -- been heavily influenced by African Americans. Mexican American essayist Richard Rodriguez has extended his gratitude to blacks for refashioning the English language, giving it so much of its cadence and dynamism, and then sharing it with the children of immigrants.
It is rarely acknowledged that black influence in U.S. culture and politics far exceeds African Americans' percentage of the population. In politics as in culture, their power has always been less a function of numbers than of their unique role in American history. Latinos may now outnumber blacks, but African Americans will remain firmly entrenched in the American psyche.