The Basis Of Black-Latino Unity Is Not Political

For quite some time we have observed the recent discussions surrounding the efforts to construct "Black-Brown"; "Black-Latino"; or "Black and Hispanic" political coalitions. We have been struck by the manner in which many intellectuals, political scientists and elected officials in their efforts to justify or cobble together Black and Latino Unity, are taking their point of departure from the results of the 2000 Census. We disagree with their approach on a couple of levels. A few months ago, in an e-mail discussion on an outstanding list serve that I am part of, I wrote the following in reference to the issue of Black and Latino unity:

I am of the opinion that Black and Latino unity can never be generated in the political realm. The root of unity will be found in a discovery and recognition of the common root in history, of which a majority of Blacks and Latinos are still ignorant. This is one area where the power of culture will be the genesis and base of political action. At present, both groups are neither "Black" or "Latino" in their political activity. Partisan politics and local political machinery is dictating the terms of the relationship as well as the mode of politics being used by both electorates and their most visible leadership. In addition, it is important to recognize that the power to define is a basic and an instrumental source of the disunity and the eventual unity that is to be formed. One of the most striking aspects of this recent debate is that the impact of slavery in the Western Hemisphere is never discussed in terms of the classifications, language and cultural barriers that currently exist today. When the debate stops taking its point of departure from the recent census categories and (moves) into the true origins of our divisions we would have found a basis or springboard for constructive unity and political mobilization.

In essence, our argument is not a difficult one to understand, at its root. We are stating that mayoral elections, like that which recently occurred in Los Angeles and that which is upcoming in New York, are not well-suited to generate the long-talked about Black-Latino unity. We believe that the political establishment, through the two-party system, can not generate or even tolerate Black-Latino unity because such unity would produce a political agenda, created by the self-enlightened interest of the Black and Latino communities that would elevate issues in the political arena that the two-party system is designed to avoid. Neither the Democratic or Republican parties can handle a true Black-Latino united front. The combined power of the vote and the issues that it would champion would present the ultimate challenge to White supremacy in American politics and society.

But the greatest impediment or enemy to the production of Black and Latino unity is not White establishment politicians but rather the gross ignorance, prevalent in both communities, of their shared history and "ethnic" origin. In essence, both groups lack the true knowledge of themselves, and as a result don't understand that the strongest basis of their unity lies in the spiritual and cultural spheres and not in the political or electoral realm.

And it is in this area where the recent discussions that take their springboard from the recent Census results are so destructive. We discussed all of this over the weekend with The Nation Of Islam's Latino Representative Minister Muhammad Abdullah Muhammad, who is based in New York City. Minister Muhammad talked about how deceptive the recent census was and how the unsuspecting public bought into the Census' misrepresentation and misclassification of the population growth of Blacks and Latinos.

"The census has carved up a classification for Hispanics that excludes race and other characteristics of Latino people. This is inappropriate because the Latino people are not monolithic. But not according to the U.S. Census. So a Black Latino and a White Latino are both counted as 'Hispanic'. On the surface, with the rise in the 'Hispanic' population it looks like the Black population is dwindling when it is not. We have to be very careful because when you say that there are approximately 35 million Black people and 35 million Hispanics what are you really saying? Of that 35 million classified as 'Hispanic', you have lets say, 5 to 7 million Afro-Latinos and 23 million that are heavily of the Indigenous population. Most Latin Americans are mestizos which means of mixed race – a combination of Indigenous, African or European."

Minister Muhammad then described how the classifications of the Census are even more divisive, as in Directive No. 15, with which the Census, without equivocation, classifies Hispanics, under all circumstances, as White. He mentioned instances where law enforcement agencies and correctional facilities are mandated by provisions to count Hispanics or Latinos who are arrested or imprisoned as "White".

Minister Muhammad Abdullah Muhammad told us that there are a confluence of forces at work here but that two of the major aspects to what is taking place that thus far has prevented Black and Latino unity from forming is the lack of knowledge of self, of both communities, combined with a strong incentive, in society and from the United States government for Latin Americans to identify with Whites before they identify with Blacks. He highlighted the fact that in the last census 80% of Puerto Ricans classified themselves as White. But anybody familiar with Puerto Rico or who has traveled there knows that the commonwealth is heavily populated with Blacks. The same is true of Cuba. Minister Muhammad said that it is an ignorance of the history of many Latin American countries coupled with denial and the seeking of access to resources, power and social equality that contributes to many Latinos rejecting Black and Indigenous roots in favor of an association with a White lineage. Of course, we recognize the same phenomenon among Blacks in this country.

Minister Muhammad Abdullah told us,

" If you look at the history you know immediately that Puerto Rico is not filled with Whites. In 1530 Governor Francisco Manuel De Lando made the first census of Puerto Rico. At the time it showed that Puerto Rico was made up of 416 Spaniards, 1148 Indians (free and enslaved) and 2077 Blacks (enslaved). During the subsequent centuries hundreds of thousand African slaves and Europeans migrated to the Island. The Indigenous population did not increase. According to Sociologist Martin Sagrera, in 1802 there were 78,231 whites and 71,510 blacks in Puerto Rico; by 1860, there were 300,406 whites and 241,037 blacks; in 1899, 1930 the black population had dwindled to 20 %; and by 1965 it had dwindled down to 7 %. What happened to all the Blacks? Sagrera attributes this phenomenon to racial prejudice, which has prompted a rejection to a self classification as black among Puerto Ricans Today, many Puerto Ricans reject the classification as Black. They take the opposite approach to identity Blacks have been culturally and legally conditioned to take in America. The Anglo-Saxon set a precedent that in many ways was beneficial to Blacks when he said that if you have 1 drop of Black blood in you then you are Black. In Latin America, according to the system of 'castas', one drop of White blood makes one other than Black. Many, therefore reject being classified as Black on those grounds."

In addition, Minister Muhammad stressed that it is important to never underestimate the impact that the Indigenous or Indians have in the discussion. He discussed at length with us how many Blacks and Latinos in America are in denial about their shared ancestry from the Indian populations throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean. He even spoke of how few people are aware of how the fact that many people in the Western hemisphere are of a dark-complexion not just because Black blood is mixed in them, but also because of the mixing that has taken place with Indians. Often Indians are described as "red" but that distinction has been oversimplified by many who use it. He wrote to us, "That color red was very dominant in North America. But in Mexico, you find a browner, sometimes almost Black Indian. In The Andes, you will also find a very dark Indian - ranging from red to dark brown. However, due to 500 years of race mixing, you will also find very light skinned mestizos."

The problem of what to do with the Indigenous people or Indian is prevalent throughout the Western Hemisphere.

One of our technical consultants at is from Peru and informed us that although there is a significant Black population in Peru, one of their major problems is that while there exists in Peru a reverence for the culture of their indigenous population, there exists, parallel to that reverence, discriminatory practices against the indigenous people of Peru and the elevation of the light-skinned Peruvian on broadcast media and in politics. It is that way in many countries in Central, South America and in the Caribbean. It is that way in the United States and Canada.

The challenge of getting Blacks in the United States of America and Latinos in the U.S. and the Western Hemisphere to forge a union is typified when one considers the history of Mexico. Minister Muhammad spoke to us of the fact that many Blacks in this country don't identify with Mexicans but that such an attitude is the byproduct of cultural conditioning and the lack of knowledge of Mexican history. He points out that over 1 million Mexicans died during the Mexican war of independence, the majority of them being Afro-Mexican. Most of the soldiers of General Morelos and General Guerrero, both Afro-Mexicans themselves, had African blood in their veins. Moreover, the African influence is vivid in Mexican culture. “La Bamba” is an Afro-Mexican rhythm, and its name is African. And the foremost Afro-Mexican musician is the expressive Santana, who never fails to praise Africa, Minister Muhammad tells us.

In addition, we have noted the inability of the reparations movement in America to connect with those who make similar claims throughout the Diaspora. In addition, it is peculiar that Blacks in this country who connect with struggles in Africa are unable to do the same with the struggles of the Indigenous populations in the Western hemisphere.

We have always been amazed that Blacks in the U.S. have bought into the deception that the Jewish community for example, are their natural allies, as opposed to the Native American population.

Minister Muhammad Abdullah stressed the importance of the Black and Latino communities educating one another of their shared history. He said that many Latino immigrants, as an example, are unaware of how devastating slavery was for Blacks in this country. He also mentioned that Blacks are woefully unaware of the struggles of the indigenous and Black populations in Central, South America and the Caribbean. He said that both communities have to learn about one another if any unity is to be lasting.

He placed emphasis on the fact that it is important that the current cadre of Latino leaders in the U.S. not make the same mistakes that Black leaders made in the 1960s, and still make in the present, in some of their efforts at integration. He told us:

"Much of the Latino community itself, is a newly arrived community except for the older Mexican communities from the 19th century. And some of its leadership is fighting for crumbs from White America. Many have to realize that when they come from Latin America and try to be White, the White Americans and those in government will try to make them feel White but they won't ever receive the benefits of being White like the Italian, for example. The Latino is behind the Eastern European and the White Anglo-Saxon in that regard. America doesn't really want Latinos as White, they just don't want them to identify with Blacksthe greatest fear in America is of the Black ex-slave and they want to divide the Black ex-slave from the new Latino immigrant."

While it may be chic and the "in" thing to talk of Black and Latino political coalitions, the truth of the matter is that such coalitions will not work if Blacks and Latinos see themselves first and foremost, in the political system, as Democrats and Republicans. Secondly, while there are major points of agreement among Blacks and Latinos on matters of social justice and political advancement, the playing field constructed by the American political establishment will leave both communities fighting for crumbs that fall from the table of "benevolent" White Democrats and White Republicans – not enough for a meal, and certainly not enough to sustain a lasting unity among over 70 million people.

Already, we are learning of the intention of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee to pursue the "Hispanic" community as never before. The efforts, as they are being formulated, are already pitting Blacks against Latinos, especially in the Democratic Party, as both groups recognize that minority politics in America is a zero-sum game where the gain of one minority group is the loss of another. Sadly, instead of opting out of the system, or exploring independent alternatives, Black and Latino leaders are poised to alternate with one another for the affections of political party bosses. Again, it is a classic example of how Black and Latino leaders devalue their electorates and their votes by making acceptance from the White establishment more important than true political empowerment and a responsiveness to issues.

It is only through a cultural and spiritual agreement fostered in large part by the education of Blacks and Latinos of the true history of Blacks, the Indigenous and Whites in the Western Hemisphere, that both communities can become one and form a coalition in the political realm.

Anything short of that exercise will result in dashed hopes and expectations and increased tensions among the two groups currently being pitted against one another by the political establishment.

Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, July 24, 2001