Now that Latinos are considering the potential spoils of their new status as the “top” minority in America, African Americans would like to say congratulations—sorta. We never gained much out of being the most numerous people of color. Here’s hoping you fare better.
If the history of immigrants from places like Ireland and Italy is any guide, America’s power brokers will prefer to deal with Latinos—a group closer in proximity to whiteness. Granted, coming from Ciudad Juárez isn’t the same as coming from County Cork, but anything is better than coming up from slavery.
In that long climb, the effect of sheer mass has never compared to that of direct appeals to conscience and courts. The civil rights cause “was never based on numbers,” says Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “Blacks have raised these questions, and [white Americans] have responded because blacks have raised them very sharply.”
For African Americans, the Latino explosion has no particular significance, except that the mere suggestion of a black-Latino rivalry deflects attention from the most entrenched conflict in American history—the one between blacks and whites. Better yet, Anglos prefer that blacks and Latinos fight it out, allowing them to sidestep race, and black people, altogether.
Last January, when the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Latinos had become the country’s largest minority, you’d have thought all of black America had lost a marathon. The south Florida Sun-Sentinel announced we’d been “surpassed”; The Washington Post said Hispanics were “outpacing” us; and The Charlotte Observer cast us in a “slow eclipse.” Earl Ofari Hutchinson peered into his scrying pool for the Los Angeles Daily News and divined the headline “Latinos’ New Clout Threatening to Blacks.”
Hutchinson was not alone. “African-Americans and the African-American leadership community are about to enter an identity crisis, the extent of which we’ve not begun to imagine,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. predicted in a New York Times article. “Our privileged status is about to be disrupted in profound ways.” Gates didn’t specify how we’d ever been “privileged” or how that status would be “disrupted.” Now that there are more Latinos in this country than blacks, would the government start dismantling affirmative action? Would the police start profiling us? Would high-ranking elected officials suddenly start making racist remarks? Oh, wait. . . .
Let’s begin with the numbers. First, African Americans are still, and for the foreseeable future will be, the country’s largest racial minority. Latino is not a racial category but an ethnic one. The census form allows you to check both for Hispanic ethnicity and for racial category. Some 37 million people identified as Latino, and 16.9 million Latinos checked “white alone” as their race. Officially, Latinos are the country’s largest ethnic minority, but with 40 percent of their numbers identifying as white only—not white and something else—they are far from the largest racial minority.
Still, experts are auguring a national power struggle between blacks and Latinos. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Latino growth “comes at the expense of other minority groups, especially black people, who have worked for 200 years to get a level playing field, a fair shot.”
Even if such a claim were true, don’t expect much to come of it, if only for geographical reasons. When the 10 states with the largest percentage of Latinos is cross-referenced with the 10 states with the largest percentage of African Americans, there is not a single match. While this may be hard for New Yorkers to believe, in the states where the Latino population exceeds 20 percent of the total, the African American population is generally minuscule—Texas being the only exception. Even in California, where 32 percent of the population is Latino, African Americans make up a scant 7 percent of the total.
It’s kind of hard to go to war with the guy next door when, well, he doesn’t live next door. “Two-thirds of Latinos live in the Southwest. Fifty-five percent of African Americans live in the Southeast,” notes Gregory Rodriguez, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “The majority of Latinos don’t live in the same state, much less the same region of the country as African Americans.” This does not mean there aren’t certain regions where blacks and Latinos could find themselves in conflict. But don’t expect it to be a national phenomenon.
Republicans, in particular, have been hot to make inroads with Latinos, in hopes of creating a voting bloc to counter the Democratic lock on the black community. If such a strategy is to succeed, expect it to be a regional effort also. Trying to draw a straight line between the national voting patterns of Cuban Americans in Florida and, say, Puerto Ricans in New York is folly, because the history of the two groups’ interaction with America is so different.
According to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 54 percent of Cuban Americans are Republican, compared to only 19 percent of Mexican Americans and 8 percent of Dominican Americans.
None of this diminishes the very real ramifications of having 37 million Americans identify themselves as Latino. Nor should it trivialize the effects of anti-immigration measures and discrimination on Latinos. Furthermore, race and ethnicity have always been interwoven in American history, and the nexus of the two has often been a barrier to those seeking full citizenship. The Irish, Jews, and Italians, upon first arriving in America, were seen as something less than white, and occasionally, something even less than black.
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 origin—roughly a million identified themselves as being at least partially black—and 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 question—change 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 themselves—as 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 essential—it’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 problems—poverty, education, crime, unemployment—are 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 majority—historically racist and ethnically chauvinistic—will 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 do—get rich and join the Republican Party.
“El Pueblo Unido: Making the Case for a United Latino Front” by Grace Bastidas