March 28, 2008

Commentary:

When Will We Latinos Realize We Are Black?

By Paul Garza, Jr.

Latinos and African-Americans share the bottom rung on all social indices in America; what the first Clinton presidential campaign correctly referred to as the ‘misery-index’. These ‘miseries’ include: appallingly low educational attainment; high dropout rates; low per capita income; high rates of incarceration, teenage pregnancy, obesity, heart disease, diabetes - you name it and we are there together.

Likewise in an American political landscape still too easily shaped by divisive symbols and racial imagery, Latinos are in effect ‘Black.’ Like them, we are demonized for political exploitation. We know the rhetoric too well - brown faces surging over fences, jobs stolen from Americans, aliens coming here for ‘services.’ No amount of contributions to the economy or in the blood of former undocumented immigrants in Iraq will change that perception. We are still knife-wielding ‘greasers.’

If the Republicans have used the “Black welfare queen” to win elections, most notably in 1988, they are now prepared to use the “Brown Menace” to try to win this one. From this ‘white’ perspective, Latinos are now an even greater threat than the welfare queen and gang-banger, favored images of Black America.

It is time for Latinos to experience an epiphany similar to the movie “The Commitments.” The leader of this Irish R&B group reasons that: “Irish are the Blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the Blacks of Ireland, the eastsiders are the Blacks of Dublin.” So the band members repeat the James Brown mantra “I am black and I am proud.” In American politics, we are ‘Black.”

Yes, there are tensions between African-Americans and Latinos. These are real. Just as Obama recently talked openly about the tension and misunderstandings between white and black, there are profound gaps in cultural experience that separate us. But neither of us desires to be ‘American’ in the way the right wants to define America. Both have experiences that make us wary of ‘assimilation’ knowing assimilation comes at the cost of denying our heritage and acting ‘differently.’

There is little question that a cohesive political alliance between African-Americans and Latinos would guarantee both groups control over the nation’s political agenda. This is the long recognized but unfulfilled dream of the ‘rainbow coalition’. What prevents us from becoming that force? Many argue that Latinos are just too diverse. Taken from the 30,000-foot perspective, that is true. We are a mix of ancestry from many nationalities, many races, and significantly differing stages of integration into America. This is unlike African-Americans who tend to share a more defined common experience.

But in the Southwest, in particular, where our numbers and our opportunities are greatest, we are decidedly ‘Mexican’ with the common denominator of immigration. It is time we bare our souls. There is an instructive Puerto Rican dicho that loosely translated goes “Money tends to make your skin lighter.” Latinos of Mexican descent carry a psychogenetic makeup ingrained in the colonial experience. This translates European as good, Indigenous as bad, mixed okay if you are more European than Indigenous. My mestiza abuela even boasted her marriage to my light-skinned, blue-eyed grandfather had ‘improved the blood’. Can we overcome this sad inheritance?

We can continue the ‘crab in the bucket’ mentality of believing the only way up is to pull each other down. Such competition guarantees we share the bottom with African-Americans. Or, we can recognize that the enemy is the view of many majority Americans who treat us both as ‘black’. And, we can forge the effective alliance that will improve both our communities. It is time for us to say, “We are black and we are proud.”

Paul Garza, Jr. is the head of Garza Consulting, which provides access to capital, economic development and government relations to corporations and non-profit organizations. Reprinted from CandidatoUSA (http://www.candidatousa.com)

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