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Roots of anger

Longtime prejudices, not economic rivalry, fuel Latino-black tensions.

January 07, 2007|Tanya K. Hernandez | Tanya K. Hernandez is a professor of law at Rutgers University Law School.

THE ACRIMONIOUS relationship between Latinos and African Americans in Los Angeles is growing hard to ignore. Although last weekend's black-versus-Latino race riot at Chino state prison is unfortunately not an aberration, the Dec. 15 murder in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood of Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old African American, allegedly by members of a Latino gang, was shocking.

Yet there was nothing really new about it. Rather, the murder was a manifestation of an increasingly common trend: Latino ethnic cleansing of African Americans from multiracial neighborhoods. Just last August, federal prosecutors convicted four Latino gang members of engaging in a six-year conspiracy to assault and murder African Americans in Highland Park. During the trial, prosecutors demonstrated that African American residents (with no gang ties at all) were being terrorized in an effort to force them out of a neighborhood now perceived as Latino.

For example, one African American resident was murdered by Latino gang members as he looked for a parking space near his Highland Park home. In another case, a woman was knocked off her bicycle and her husband was threatened with a box cutter by one of the defendants, who said, "You niggers have been here long enough."

At first blush, it may be mystifying why such animosity exists between two ethnic groups that share so many of the same socioeconomic deprivations. Over the years, the hostility has been explained as a natural reaction to competition for blue-collar jobs in a tight labor market, or as the result of turf battles and cultural disputes in changing neighborhoods. Others have suggested that perhaps Latinos have simply been adept at learning the U.S. lesson of anti-black racism, or that perhaps black Americans are resentful at having the benefits of the civil rights movement extended to Latinos.

Although there may be a degree of truth to some or all of these explanations, they are insufficient to explain the extremity of the ethnic violence.

Over the years, there's also been a tendency on the part of observers to blame the conflict more on African Americans (who are often portrayed as the aggressors) than on Latinos. But although it's certainly true that there's plenty of blame to go around, it's important not to ignore the effect of Latino culture and history in fueling the rift.

The fact is that racism -- and anti-black racism in particular -- is a pervasive and historically entrenched reality of life in Latin America and the Caribbean. More than 90% of the approximately 10 million enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were taken to Latin America and the Caribbean (by the French, Spanish and British, primarily), whereas only 4.6% were brought to the United States. By 1793, colonial Mexico had a population of 370,000 Africans (and descendants of Africans) -- the largest concentration in all of Spanish America.

The legacy of the slave period in Latin America and the Caribbean is similar to that in the United States: Having lighter skin and European features increases the chances of socioeconomic opportunity, while having darker skin and African features severely limits social mobility.

White supremacy is deeply ingrained in Latin America and continues into the present. In Mexico, for instance, citizens of African descent (who are estimated to make up 1% of the population) report that they regularly experience racial harassment at the hands of local and state police, according to recent studies by Antonieta Gimeno, then of Mount Holyoke College, and Sagrario Cruz-Carretero of the University of Veracruz.

Mexican public discourse reflects the hostility toward blackness; consider such common phrases as "getting black" to denote getting angry, and "a supper of blacks" to describe a riotous gathering of people. Similarly, the word "black" is often used to mean "ugly." It is not surprising that Mexicans who have been surveyed indicate a disinclination to marry darker-skinned partners, as reported in a 2001 study by Bobby Vaughn, an anthropology professor at Notre Dame de Namur University.

Anti-black sentiment also manifests itself in Mexican politics. During the 2001 elections, for instance, Lazaro Cardenas, a candidate for governor of the state of Michoacan, is believed to have lost substantial support among voters for having an Afro Cuban wife. Even though Cardenas had great name recognition (as the grandson of Mexico's most popular president), he only won by 5 percentage points -- largely because of the anti-black platform of his opponent, Alfredo Anaya, who said that "there is a great feeling that we want to be governed by our own race, by our own people."

Given this, it should not be surprising that migrants from Mexico and other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean arrive in the U.S. carrying the baggage of racism. Nor that this facet of Latino culture is in turn transmitted, to some degree, to younger generations along with all other manifestations of the culture.

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