A panel of four interdisciplinary professors discussed how black and “Latinx” communities should unite to combat racial prejudice to an audience of about 50 people at the Woodruff Health Sciences Center (WHSC) Feb. 22.
The panel consisted of Alan Aja, associate professor of Puerto Rican and Latino studies at Brooklyn College (N.Y.); Andrea Benjamin, assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri; Darlene Rodriguez, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work and Human Services at Kennesaw State University (Ga.); and Angela Stuesse, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Emory University Associate Professor of Political Science Andra Gillespie moderated the discussion.
Gillespie posed a series of questions that explored the conditions that either promoted solidarity or exacerbated competition between black and “Latinx” communities.
To start, Aja explained the difference between race and ethnicity. According to Aja, race is a social construction without any biological foundation that reinforces class hierarchies and the dominance of some social groups, and ethnicity is shared common national, cultural or religious characteristics among a group of people. He also explained that the term “Latinx” is gaining popularity because it is a neutral term that doesn’t reinforce the gender binary of Latino or Latina.
Aja argued that people’s skin color affects their personal experiences because whiteness has been socially constructed as the most desirable race. He argued that a white-passing Latino has a fundamentally different experience than someone who is Afro-Latino, or a Latino with darker skin, even though the two share an ethnicity.
“While a ‘Latinx’ white person might identify as ‘Latinx,’ that is not the same experience as somebody who identifies as black or African American or Afro-Latino,” Aja said. “Yes, [Race and ethnicity] can be fluid and intersect, but historical experiences are not always the same.”
Rodriguez commented on the connection between skin pigmentation and power, and how within black and “Latinx” communities, those with lighter skin are seen as higher in the social hierarchy.
Benjamin expanded on that idea by sharing a quote from Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz.
“We as black [and] ‘Latinx’ [people] are so anti-white nationalism when it’s them doing it, but we ourselves have internalized a lot of it too,” Benjamin quoted.
Benjamin said that there have been political incentives to avoid bringing up common experiences between black and “Latinx” communities because the two communities can be better exploited when they are pitted against each other. She said that she hopes the two groups can unite based on shared experiences and realize that they have both been impacted by structural racism.
“In the local context that means: Why are we always stopped by the police?” Benjamin said. “Why don’t we have nice homes? How come we are being redlined? Why are our schools so bad, and now that the new people are here with their million dollar condos and they can send their kids to private school?”
Stuesse argued that white supremacy helps to reinforce stereotypes of the two groups. She said that “Latinx” people buy into the discourse that black people are criminals and lazy, just as black people buy into the narrative that “Latinx” immigrants are taking their jobs. These stereotypes pit the two groups against each other for white people’s benefit, according to Stuesse.
“There is this idea of a race to the bottom or zero-sum competition between black and ‘Latinx’ communities,” Stuess said. “I think we need to look at neoliberal capitalism and the way that that has been constructed to create this idea of competition. I think this feeds into [the acceptance of] a lot of the stereotypes.”
Stuesse and Benjamin both agreed that competition between the two communities creates an insider-outsider dynamic. Benjamin stated that racial attitudes are hard to change because both groups are so susceptible to constantly reinforced stereotypes about the other.
“The U.S. exports racism really well,” Benjamin said. “Immigrants come and think, ‘You haven’t gotten ahead because you don’t work hard.’”
Aja also commented on politicians using immigration as a tool to break up “brown/black” coalitions.
“It’s an easy wedge issue to use,” Aja said. “You tell someone that someone is going to come and take their job, but in the world of capitalism, jobs don’t have names on them. The boss is going to use the most exploitable person.”
Gillespie also asked the panel if the “Afr0-Latinx” population could serve as a bridge between the two groups.
Stuesse responded that although that idea is good in theory, it’s difficult in practice because the Afro-Latino population is very much invisible. She shared an anecdote of an Afro-Latina woman from Nicaragua who worked in a poultry factory in rural Mississippi. The woman explained to Stuesse that at one point some of her black co-workers asked her “What are you?” and were shocked to learn of the existence of an Afro-Latino, as they thought slavery was only in the United States.
Aja pointed instead to the role of white-passing Latinos in building a bridge between the communities.
“I think there is an unfair pressure on Afro-Latinos to build a bridge,” Aja said. “White-passing Latinos need to help and not be complicit.”
Rodriguez argued that political involvement would encourage solidarity and help end the exploitation of the two groups.
“Rather than just talk a good game or create a hashtag — a hashtag is not a movement — I’d say get your butt out of the seat, show up to the capitol,” Rodriguez said. “[Go] to the places where legislation and pieces of commerce and transaction are taking place where your voice will be considered because if you’re not at the table, you’re on the table, and we’ve been on the table far too long.”
Benjamin agreed that political involvement is important for minority communities.
“Black and Latino communities are underrepresented in local government, and local government is an opportunity for the two communities to unite and form coalitions on issues,” Benjamin said.
Ericka Canon (20C) said she “loved” the panel and thought that Emory should hold similar panels more often.
“They were speaking on a lot of issues that I think we don’t really talk about, especially between black and ‘Latinx’ communities and how they intertwine sometimes,” Canon said. “I think it was a really good panel and discussion.”
Vanessa Perez (21C) thought that the conversation was necessary and needs to be continued.
“There are very controversial perspectives on it, and I think it’s interesting to see which voices are represented and which ones aren’t,” Perez said.