By Alex Distefano
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There is considerable debate as to whether Latinos will follow the path of European ethnic groups and become "white," or at least "white" enough not to be talked about as a problem anymore. The biggest difference is that many Latinos are not of European originroughly a million identified themselves as being at least partially blackand thus have a further distance to travel to the privileges of whiteness.
Either way, the Latino ascendancy seems to mean more for America, as a country, as opposed to African Americans as a community. In positioning the Latino population boom as a challenge to blacks, the country is refusing to grapple with what this means for most Americans, i.e., white people. Not incidentally, it is also doing what the American majority does best when it comes to the black questionchange the subject.
"There is deep-seated tension between blacks and whites that goes way back," says Walters. "There is a desire to create a buffer group, as a way to deal with that tension, so that you don't have to deal with the very difficult questions of slavery."
John Lennon once inadvertently summed up white America's attitude toward African Americans, when he asserted that "before there was Elvis, there was nothing." That there were acts from whom Elvis borrowed is not debatable. It's just that those acts had come dressed in the sort of package white people relegated to the "nothing" category, and thus weren't worthy of conversation.
Like all people, white Americans enjoy talking about themselvesas long as the conversation makes a hero out of them. When forced to deal with black issues, whites prefer to focus on whatever positive role they have in the story, no matter how minor. This is why in any film about black struggle, one sympathetic white person is essentialit's not a story unless they are the story.
This narcissism extends to the approach to history. When cornered with difficult questions about the legacy of slavery, the debt-peonage system, or Jim Crow laws, the typical answer from white pundits is that the country needs to look to the future. Yet if queried about the importance of the Holocaust, who would talk about a need to look to the future, without at least acknowledging the horrors of Nazism? One conversation reflects well on white Americans. The other does not, and thus, as John Lennon would say, amounts to "nothing."
If there must be a conversation on race, whites would rather have it with a group that doesn't weigh on their conscience the way African Americans do. Latinos fill in just fine. That 40 percent of them already think of themselves as white is pure bonus. "Despite the anti-immigrant sentiment, ethnic minorities, like Latinos, have not instilled the same fear among whites that blacks have," says Rodriguez. "That's been reflected in the headlines. There is a desire [among white Americans] to relieve themselves of that guilt. The new ethnic groups don't have the same grip on white guilt."
The African American experience, along with the Native American experience, is the great water stain on the Bill of Rights. The very mentioning of African Americans when discussing U.S. history serves immediately to remind the country that it hasn't always been what it said it was. Consequently, most Americans have no interest in addressing the race question, and given the opportunity, will seek the quickest exit.
But there's no escaping the social and economic ills that plague both African Americans and Latinos. Black problemspoverty, education, crime, unemploymentare generally also Latino problems. Thus it's hard to envision a Latino agenda that would somehow threaten African Americans. The much larger question is how the American majorityhistorically racist and ethnically chauvinisticwill react when in 2020 one in five Americans is Latino. As a minority grows, the majority generally starts feeling uncomfortable.
As for us, dethroned though we may be, you can trust that black America isn't sweating finishing second. Between "House Slave" and "Head Nigger," we've learned our lesson about dubious honorifics like "Number One Minority." Even so, there is a perception that we want the discussion of race to remain a primarily black-white affair. Hogwash. What we want is a final, honest consideration of our place in this country. Then we can gracefully shed our role as the primary articulator of racial injustice, and get down to doing what we've always wanted to doget rich and join the Republican Party.