[DIVERSITY] Roots of Latino/Black Anger
- Roots of Latino/black anger
Longtime prejudices, not economic rivalry, fuel tensions.
By 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
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
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
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.
The sociological concept of "social distance" measures the unease one
ethnic or racial group has for interacting with another. Social
science studies of Latino racial attitudes often indicate a
preference for maintaining social distance from African Americans.
And although the social distance level is largest for recent
immigrants, more established communities of Latinos in the United
States also show a marked social distance from African Americans.
For instance, in University of Houston sociologist Tatcho Mindiola's
2002 survey of 600 Latinos in Houston (two-thirds of whom were
Mexican, the remainder Salvadoran and Colombian) and 600 African
Americans, the African Americans had substantially more positive
views of Latinos than Latinos had of African Americans. Although a
slim majority of the U.S.-born Latinos used positive identifiers when
describing African Americans, only a minority of the foreign-born
Latinos did so. One typical foreign-born Latino respondent stated: "I
just don't trust them . The men, especially, all use drugs, and they
all carry guns."
This same study found that 46% of Latino immigrants who lived in
residential neighborhoods with African Americans reported almost no
interaction with them.
The social distance of Latinos from African Americans is consistently
reflected in Latino responses to survey questions. In a 2000 study of
residential segregation, Camille Zubrinsky Charles, a sociology
professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that Latinos were
more likely to reject African Americans as neighbors than they were
to reject members of other racial groups. In addition, in the 1999-
2000 Lilly Survey of American Attitudes and Friendships, Latinos
identified African Americans as their least desirable marriage
partners, whereas African Americans proved to be more accepting of
intermarriage with Latinos.
Ironically, African Americans, who are often depicted as being averse
to coalition-building with Latinos, have repeatedly demonstrated in
their survey responses that they feel less hostility toward Latinos
than Latinos feel toward them.
Although some commentators have attributed the Latino hostility to
African Americans to the stress of competition in the job market, a
1996 sociological study of racial group competition suggests
otherwise. In a study of 477 Latinos from the 1992 Los Angeles County
Social Survey, professors Lawrence Bobo, then of Harvard, and Vincent
Hutchings of the University of Michigan found that underlying
prejudices and existing animosities contribute to the perception that
African Americans pose an economic threat not the other way around.
It is certainly true that the acrimony between African Americans and
Latinos cannot be resolved until both sides address their own
unconscious biases about one another. But it would be a mistake to
ignore the Latino side of the equation as some observers have done
particularly now, when the recent violence in Los Angeles has
involved Latinos targeting peaceful African American citizens.
This conflict cannot be sloughed off as simply another generation of
ethnic group competition in the United States (like the familiar
rivalries between Irish, Italians and Jews in the early part of the
last century). Rather, as the violence grows, the "diasporic" origins
of the anti-black sentiment the entrenched anti-black prejudice
among Latinos that exists not just in the United States but across
the Americas will need to be directly confronted.