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Will Latinos Choose Obama in November?

The Latin Vote This Year May be More a Function of Race than Politics

By Michelle Hay, Ph.D • July 20, 2008
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Clinton won the Latino vote by roughly a 2-to-1 margin in California, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Nevada. And so a debate ensues between those who argue that Latinos are racist and will not vote for a black candidate, and those who say race has nothing to do with it; Latinos vote for Clinton, not against Obama.

It is as foolish to say that the Latino preference for Clinton is totally racism as it is to say it is definitively not. Clearly it is not totally racism, since though most Latinos vote for Clinton, some do vote for Obama.  Also, as some note, Latinos have supported black candidates in Chicago, New York, Denver, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

Perhaps the one thing that is missing from this discussion is that Latinos are not a monolithic group. There are Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, and Chicanos, who have been a part of the nation for over a century. These folks have forged their identities and political positions within the context of the U.S. Then there are those Latinos who are recently arrived, and whose life experiences, political sensibilities, and identities are Latin American.

Again and again researchers demonstrate that these two groups have different attitudes toward African Americans, and indeed to the labels Latino and Hispanic, which are thrown around so lightly. For instance, researchers in Durham, North Carolina, interviewed the city’s newly arrived Latino population as well as whites and blacks about their racial attitudes. They found that “the prevalence of negative stereotypes of black Americans in the Latino immigrant community is quite widespread, and (that)…the stereotypes of blacks by Latinos are more negative than those of white respondents.” Durham’s Latinos also felt they had more in common with whites. Research also finds, however, that Latino immigrants’ attitudes and identities change with time. There is a correlation between identifying as Latino, a positive attitude toward African Americans, and being in the U.S. for a long time.

It doesn’t surprise me that more recent immigrants tend to distance themselves from African Americans and to feel allied with whites. There are, after all, material benefits to this. Immigrants quickly perceive who has the most clout, and in situations where there is competition with African Americans, and for that matter Chicanos, for jobs, white employers often favor immigrants.  It would surprise these Latinos to know, though, that the Durham researchers found that a plurality of white respondents see themselves as having the least in common with Latinos, while nearly half the black respondents felt they had the most in common with Latinos.

Distancing from African Americans is not only materially expedient, however, it is also a function of a deeply engrained anti-black racism in Latin America. The Durham researchers, in fact, concluded that it was unlikely that Durham’s Latinos had developed their anti-black attitudes in the U.S. from white Americans; they arrived here with them. What makes Latin American racism particularly pernicious is that it coexists with the popular myth, subscribed to by even black Latinos, that their countries are racial democracies. Thus, at the same time that most will say they are not racist, blacks are at the very bottom of the social hierarchy on every socioeconomic indicator, and white supremacy is evident. And, as in the U.S., black neighborhoods are policed more aggressively, resulting in higher rates of black incarceration. Also, as in the U.S., in the popular imagination, blacks are at the bottom, not because of racism, but because of their own moral failings.

Indeed, many common expressions hint at the negative attitudes toward black Latinos. In the Cuban case this includes:  “si no la hace a la entrada la hace a la salida;” “el es un Negro, pero bueno;” “el es negro, pero tiene una alma blanca:  (Translation: if he doesn’t mess up on the way in, he will on the way out; he is black, but good; he is black but with a white heart). Black Latinos, who are frequently mistaken for African Americans who don’t speak Spanish, are often privy to the nasty comments some Latinos make about blacks, including the proverbial, cuidado, aqui un negro que va a robar” (careful, here is a black who is going to steal). How can these attitudes not affect the opportunities that black Latinos have to realize their potential?

The ideology of mestizaje—we are a racially and culturally mixed people—is a significant corollary to the racial democracy myth. It essentially solidifies and gives credence to the “we can’t be racist because we are all mixed” and the “if we were racist we would not be so mixed” arguments. Yes, on the surface mestizaje is progressive, since it seems to accept and celebrate mixture, but there is no doubt that whiteness is the most valued and blackness the least valued components of this mixture. It also excludes those who are not mixed, and especially black and indigenous peoples. This is why all over the region, folks are trying to mejorar or adalantar la raza (improve the race) by marrying white.  It is also why nearly 50% of Latinos selected the “white” classification on the U.S. Census 2000, and another 47% selected the “mixed” or “other” category. Very few selected the “black” category.

Anti-black racism continues among Latin American immigrants in the U.S., and we can see its effects. For instance, the Mumford Center (2003) found out from the U.S. Census 2000 that black and white Hispanics lived in different neighborhoods; the latter lived in neighborhoods “with the lowest percentage of immigrants and non-English speaking neighbors.” In addition, most black Hispanic children had a non-Hispanic parent. In other words, black Latinos were integrating into black populations because it is among blacks, and not among their white counterparts, that they find acceptance and affirmation of blackness.

Black Latinos are also historically erased from Latinidad, which explains the title of the 1995 publication, No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today. In the U.S., this erasure is evident in the near absence of blacks on Spanish-language TV. Black Latinos experience this painfully when white Latinos are surprised that they speak Spanish. Many see this as a deliberate forgetting, a desire to wish them away. One black Cuban woman from New York is so angry at this denial of their existence that she sometimes refuses to speak Spanish around Latinos: “It’s that anger that you have. You know how black Cubans in Miami are angry because white Cubans don’t recognize them as Cubans, it’s like I don’t wanna go through that.”

The denial of racism also continues in the U.S., and along with it the condemnation of anyone who charges racism. In “Masking Hispanic Racism: A Cuban Case Study,”
Dr. Miguel de la Torres (1999), a self-identified white Cuban, reveals the existence of this racism and its denial among the exile population:

Our first response to the accusation of racism is its denial. We may quote the Venezuelan proverb “Aquí todos somos café con leche; unos más café, otros más leche (Here we are coffee and milk; some more coffee, other more milk).” Yet leche has access to employment, state services, power, wealth, and privilege, while café is disenfranchised. Leche is rich, civilized, intelligent, and modern, while café is poor, savage, ignorant, and primitive.

In fact, then, the condemnation of people who have argued that Latinos won’t vote for blacks is the norm. As my black Cuban informants told me, to complain about racism is to be accused of having a complex and of being divisive and unpatriotic.  But, why the denial? Well, just as with some white Americans, admitting racism means giving up a privileged position and the notion that what they have is honestly earned. Some Latinos also simply do not see themselves as racist. They see no problem, for instance, with telling you they are not racist because as children their nanny or best friend was black; to some black Cubans, though, this is racism: Child care was the only job their mothers could get, and white parents did not want their children to play with blacks. An even more detrimental reason, though, for the denial is the tendency among Latinos to define racism by what North Americans do—bus segregation, lynchings, and other more overt and personal racial acts.  And so, the institutionalized racism that really restricts the opportunities of black Latinos remains under cover.

It is worth inserting here that the U.S. is moving toward the Latin American variant of racism. Here we have the conservative narrative that racism is behind us, coexisting with a racism that is powerful, but incredibly hard to prove. Princeton sociology researchers recently did so, however. They sent out matching teams of testers—equally qualified black, Latino and white men—to find jobs in New York City. Their conclusions: “We find that black job applicants are only two-thirds as successful as equally qualified Latinos, and little more than half as successful as equally qualified whites. Indeed, black job seekers fare no better than white men just released from prison.”

It seems then that, in light of what I know about Latin American racism, it is not at all far-fetched that the anti-black attitudes that some Latinos hold, can affect how they vote.  People’s politics come out of their experiences, and if it is in the experiences of some Latinos that black people are worth less, why would they vote for Barack Obama, a black man?

Michelle Hay, Ph.D. is an anthropologist whose research interest is racial ideologies and practices in the Americas, with a focus on Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands. Her doctoral research is on black Cuban Americans. She is an adjunct lecturer at Spelman College. 

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