Black and Brown

Sunday, January 13, 2008


By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Middle Passage. 232 pp. $19.95

Writer and activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson begins The Latino Challenge to Black America on a promising note. He recalls an incident on a cultural trip to China in 1974, when he assumed that a fellow delegate from Chicago named Miguel was Puerto Rican. Miguel, who was Mexican American, didn't appreciate the assumption, and his "pithy but agitated" retort was "both a revelation and an education." A few pages later, Hutchinson pronounces that he does not "treat blacks and Latinos as monolithic in their thinking," either on key political issues or on the state of black-Latino relations. So far, so good.

But like so many writers on race in America, Hutchinson quickly abandons any attempt to discuss the aspirations of roughly 70 million souls in anything other than shorthand. Outside of occasional references to opinion surveys, the blacks and Latinos who appear in these pages are prisoners, gang members or activists who have assumed the right to speak on behalf of millions of their ethnic brethren.

In chapter one, Hutchinson points to a partnership in the late 1960s between the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican activist group, and the Black Panther Party as evidence of an affinity between Puerto Ricans and blacks. Further on, he treats as good news that in 2002 the NAACP invited the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens to address its convention. But other than cable-news and beltway journalists who'd rather pick up the phone to ask an "ethnic leader" what his people think than do actual reporting, does anyone really think ethnic activists represent anyone?

Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it was morally incumbent upon the black middle-class elite to speak for those who were blocked from the polls. But today this type of take-me-to-your-leader politics -- in which the chosen Latino sits down with the chosen black, or maybe even the chosen Asian -- amounts to not much more than theatrics with little actual effect on the lives of real people. Worse yet, such brokerage politics encourages the media to oversimplify complex populations and reduce them to one-dimensional "communities."

Hutchinson talks of the Latino and black "agendas" as if each group were an organized unit, and he makes too many unconvincing generalizations. The book is chock-full of unsupported blanket statements: "Many blacks minimize the suffering and plight of poor Mexican immigrants." Many Latinos are unaware of "the depth of black suffering." At one point he writes, "The newer immigrants accuse blacks of demanding expensive and wasteful government programs, rather than emphasizing self-help and personal initiative to draw themselves out of their economic misery." How does he know that?

Hutchinson means well, and the point of the book is to encourage Latino and black activists to transcend what he says are the myths, stereotypes, misperceptions and fears that keep them from working together. But it seems to me that well-meaning generalizations are not the basis of any sort of real understanding. No ethnic or racial group is one-dimensional, but Latinos -- a multiracial, multilingual, multi-class, multi-national-origin and multi-generational American group -- are a particularly unwieldy bunch. At the beginning of this thin volume, Hutchinson claims to "make no pretense that this book is an exhaustive or comprehensive dissection" of the issues or populations involved. He's right. Indeed, he barely breaks the surface.

--Gregory Rodriguez is the author of "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America."

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