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We Need to Talk About the Cloak of Racial Innocence in the Latino Community

5 minute read
Hernández is the Archibald R. Murray Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law, and the author of Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality.

It was a moment of intense frustration and anger.” These were the words of the former President of the Los Angeles City Council Nury Martinez, as she tried to explain her litany of racist comments about the Black child of Councilman Mike Bonin and migrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, captured on a secret recording of the L.A. City Commission released on Oct. 9, 2022. Martinez has now resigned from the Commission, but her apology, crafted and couched in the cloak of racial innocence, provided important insights about the contours of Latino anti-Black bias, and how inadequate our national pursuit of racial equality is at the moment.

“Frustration and anger” do not absolve you from racism, and racial innocence is not a benign mental state. It is a barrier to justice. Moving forward in the pursuit of racial justice will require that we recognize racial innocence for the fiction that it is and unite in educating ourselves about the globality of anti-Blackness.

There are many Nury Martinez’s. When it comes to racism, Latino culture encourages a mindset of racial innocence in which real racism is only what White-Anglo-English-speaking U.S. residents perpetrate. Any anti-Black sentiment and action that Latinos partake in is dismissed as a cultural misunderstanding, an extension of pre-existing racism within the United States, or an uncommon momentary lapse. Racism is not what Latinos do.

But they do. In fact, Latino anti-Blackness is not contained to the U.S. 90% of the 10.7 million Africans forcibly brought to the Americas as survivors of the Middle Passage, were taken to Latin America and the Caribbean, in contrast to the 3.5% taken to what we now call the U.S. After the abolition of slavery, state actors and white elites maintained color hierarchies and exclusion with a racialized logic regarding the inferior intellect of Black people and cultural inadequacies of Indigenous communities. This racial logic continues to be perpetrated today to such an extent that it materially constrains Afro-Latino and Indigenous from socioeconomic advancement.

Read More: The Troubling Legacy Behind L.A. Councilwoman Nury Martinez’s Racist Remarks

When Latinos enter the U.S., their racial baggage comes along with them and continues to be passed along to younger generations as part of Latino culture. As an Afro Latina raised in the U.S., too often I’ve heard a relative say “Look behind the ears,” fearing a newborn infant has the potential to develop a dark skin tone. But Latino familial vigilance against Blackness does not stop with the inspection of ears. There is a vampiric attention to sun exposure that may deepen the darkness and thus “worsen” a child’s appearance.

Even Latinos who are thought to be blessed with European features are policed by their families when it comes to dating and marriage. The obsession with mejorando y adelantando la raza, or “improving and advancing the race,” by marrying lighter (ideally whiter) partners means each potential suitor is sorted out for taints of Blackness.

My own journey of collecting the stories of the victims of Latino anti-Blackness across the country revealed that Latino anti-Black bias in the U.S. causes long-lasting injuries. However, the Latino cultural self-image as racially innocent interferes with addressing the instances in which Latinos are agents of racial harm. This is because racial innocence hinders self-recognition of the problem and the motivation to make the changes necessary for racial progress. Instead, paltry rationalizations like “an intense moment of frustration and anger” are offered.

An apology and resignation from the Nury Martinez’s of the world are insufficient implements for dismantling the systemic racial innocence and creating social change. Instead, we need to enhance our racial literacy about the nature and extent of global anti-Blackness.

For too long, Afro-Latino voices have been sidelined within Latino public discourse. Because Afro-Latinos sit at the intersection of Blackness and Latino ethnic identity, they not only experience Latino racial hostility, but also are knowledgeable about its logics in a way not necessarily legible to non-Latinos and non-Black Latinos. This has left Latinos, as a collective, blind to their own anti-Black attitudes in their engagement with the world. Afro-Latinos are an important but overlooked resource in the battle against racism, and there is already existing (and growing) literature authored by Afro-Latinos dedicated to broadening our racial literacy.

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Moreover, creating space for Afro-Latinos within Latino leadership circles is another crucial step in combatting racial innocence. Consider how much more nuanced and profound public policy deliberations could be if more Afro-Latinos were present at all levels of government, in addition to nonprofits, corporate entities, and media outlets. Rather than juxtaposing the needs of Latinos as a zero-sum competition with African Americans, the Afro-Latino voice could contribute the perspective of how much our communities need to work together. Attempts at coalition are fortified when internal, racialized hierarchies are made visible and dismantled.

To be clear, ignoring the global aspects of anti-Blackness will not dissolve systemic racism. That may seem like an obvious statement to make but in my experience, not obvious enough.

In fact, a number of the invitations I have received to share my Afro-Latina expertise for Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations, suddenly evaporated when I disclosed my topic of Latino anti-Blackness. Diversity Equity & Inclusion representatives from law firms and financial institutions alerted me that they wanted to “go in a different direction” after they learned what I wanted to impart. In short, they preferred a racially innocent Hispanic Heritage Month presentation.

Opposing racial innocence implicates the entire nation, not only Latinos. A racial reckoning without an honest interrogation of the multi-directional aspects of racism is an anemic pursuit of racial equality that impedes the dream of a true democracy.

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