Beyond the Campaign Trail, Addressing a Racial Divide

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By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 28, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- During his well-publicized endorsement of Barack Obama, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson praised the presidential candidate for his candor about race. "As a Hispanic, I was particularly touched by his words," Richardson said, "Senator Obama has started a discussion in this country long overdue and rejects the politics of pitting race against race."

Richardson is particularly concerned about what he called the "demonization" of Hispanics in this country. But the endorsement of a black politician by a Hispanic officeholder also reminds us that, more often than not, the tables have been turned in Latino views of African-Americans.

This could be having implications at the ballot box, as Hillary Clinton's Hispanic pollster Sergio Bendixen suggested in January when he noted that Latino voters have "not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates." Clinton in fact has garnered two to three times more Latino voters than Obama in the presidential primaries.

Bendixen was quickly taken to task and his assertion was dismissed by many who cited Obama's own election to the Senate in 2004 and many other elections in which Latino voters have shown no problem supporting black candidates. But it is clear to those who study race that there exists a chasm between Latinos and blacks.

Paula D. McClain, Duke University political science professor and co-director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Social Sciences, has found that a majority of Latinos maintain stereotypical views about African-Americans. In the center's most recent survey of blacks, whites and Latinos in Durham, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark., the majority of Latinos interviewed said they believe that all or almost all blacks are on welfare. Seventy-two percent of Latinos in Durham, for instance, said they believe this, eclipsing the 18 percent of whites who hold the same view.

"Clearly they are not getting this from whites," said McClain, who has concluded that Latino biases primarily come from their experiences in their countries of origin. "They are not coming into this country tabula rasa," she said, adding that "many come from Mexico where the government advertises that there is no racism ... but we know that is not the case."

In fact, one might argue that there are two prominent types of racism among Latin Americans: against minority populations, including indigenous people or those of African descent; and prejudicial attitudes toward blacks in the United States.

While there were no official segregation laws as in the United States, everything but the white culture in Latin America was devalued to such a degree that the nonwhites often denied their own identity. The stigmatization of minority cultures made it easy for Latin American leaders to say they didn't have a race problem. But as more minorities began to recognize themselves as such, often thanks to the support of activists in the United States, Latin American governments began to adopt policies acknowledging their historical discrimination and exclusion of ethnic and minority groups.

How American blacks have often been portrayed in movies and television also shapes the perception of Latin Americans, particularly in Mexico, by far the largest source of Latino immigrants to the United States. A few years ago, U.S. leaders condemned as racist a set of stamps portraying a dark-skinned character known as Memin Pinguin, reminiscent of hundreds of characters created in the United States from the end of slavery to the passage of the civil rights laws. Mexicans insisted that Memin was a beloved and likable character, but it was hard to disassociate the issue from President Vicente Fox's offensive language some weeks earlier about Mexicans doing jobs in the United States that "even blacks don't want."

The racial views of Latino immigrants may not bode well for relations between the two largest U.S. minorities in the near term. Rolando Roebuck, an Afro-Latino community activist in Washington, was especially pessimistic about what he described as the current clash between Latino immigrants' "serious streak of racism" and some blacks' "xenophobic attitudes" against those immigrants.

Yet Judith Morrison, former director of a Washington-based inter-agency consultation on race in Latin America, is more optimistic, precisely because the fastest growing segment in the U.S. Latino population is Afro-Latino. They are mostly the children of Latinos and African-Americans who identify just as much with each group and who, according to Morrison, who will be "bridging both cultures."

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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