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Why are prominent Los Angeles Latinos saying such racist things?

Many marginalized communities adopt anti-Black racism to secure their halting gains as new Americans. Latinos fit this pattern, our research finds.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin takes his seat after speaking about the racist comments directed toward his son during Tuesday's council meeting. (Sarah Reingewirtz/AP)
5 min

This week, racist comments by Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martínez, council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, and labor leader Ron Herrera — all self-identified Latino progressives — hit the national news. Although some might have been surprised to hear four prominent Latinos express anti-Black prejudice, this sentiment exists widely among many other members of this ethnic group.

While that problem is often discussed, especially among the two communities most affected, few have systematically examined the sources, political consequences and potential solutions. That is what our research has focused on for the past four years. Here is what we know so far.

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Where does Latino anti-Black racism come from?

Some observers may dismiss this episode as simply a few biased people. Others might attribute the incident to some Latinos’ exposure to anti-Black ideologies in their home countries.

But our research finds that Latinos’ anti-Black prejudice has strong roots in the United States, which has been steeped in anti-Black racism since its founding. When immigrants arrive here, they and their U.S.-born children learn that however low they might be on the social scale, another group is despised more. A series of such groups, including the Irish, Italians and Poles, earned their identity as Americans by expressing anti-Black prejudice. These efforts have ranged from hurling racial epithets at African Americans to violently keeping Black families out of neighborhoods and schools.

Many Latinos — along with other communities of color — are repeating this same pattern, asserting their position in the American fabric by denigrating Black people. For example, the 2012 installment of the American National Election Study — widely considered a benchmark survey of U.S. politics — examined a large oversample of about 1,000 Latino adults. In that survey, more than half of Latino respondents agreed with statements used to measure anti-Black racism, including: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites.”

As Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison once observed, “the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American Blacks as the real aliens.”

What sets off Latino anti-Black racism?

The chain reaction that encourages Latino expressions of anti-Black racism originates from comparisons between racial groups — comparisons that are encouraged by news media and politicians. To examine this, we partnered with Dynata, an online survey firm, to conduct a study of about 1,200 Latino adults across the United States in March 2021. This opt-in sample of self-identified Latino respondents was designed to reflect U.S. census benchmarks for this ethnic group in age, gender and education.

Unbeknown to our Latino survey respondents, they were participating in an experiment. We randomly divided them into two groups. The control group read a short news brief about the declining population of giant tortoises. The other group read about how a decline in the social and economic fortunes of many Latinos was making them less American and more like Black individuals. Immediately after reading one of these briefs, participants answered four statements known to measure anti-Black attitudes, such as, “Over the past few years, Blacks have gotten less than they deserve.”

We then compared responses from the two groups. As we suspected might happen, those who read a selection that compared Latinos with Blacks were significantly more likely to agree with statements like “Mexicans, Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other Latinos have worked their way up to earn what they have. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” The increase across our full measure of anti-Black racism was about 10 percentage points.

How the U.S. census ignores Afro-Latinos

What are the consequences of Latinos’ anti-Black prejudice?

One key finding from our research is that a heightened sense of anti-Black racism among Latinos significantly increases their opposition to policies that benefit African Americans and potentially Latinos — as when we asked if they supported affirmative action in higher education or whether they believed more Black candidates should be elected to represent communities of color. The reduction in support across all pro-Black policies was about 58 percentage points.

We found this pattern of opposition more strongly among those who identified themselves as progressives, like the political leaders embroiled in the current scandal in Los Angeles.

How Black and Latino Americans did in this round of redistricting

Latinos can choose solidarity over racism

As some Latinos move from the margins of American society toward the center, anti-Black racism may increasingly surface as they continue to jockey for social positioning. With Latino political power growing in municipalities across the United States, the psychology we have outlined creates zero-sum dynamics in which more political power for “them” means less power for “us.”

With this racism on display, the Latino community might wish to take an opportunity to examine its own racial diversity and reconsider the idea that only one community of color can succeed at a time. Ordinary Latinos and their political leaders may want to consider whether they aspire to be a racially inclusive or racially exclusive community in the United States.

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Efrén Pérez (@EfrenPoliPsy) is full professor of political science and psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he directs the Race, Ethnicity, Politics & Society (REPS) Lab, and is the author of “Diversity’s Child: People of Color and the Politics of Identity” (University of Chicago Press, 2021).

Alisson Ramos (@ramos_alisso) is the REPS lab manager and a UCLA alumna.

Crystal Robertson (@CrystRobertson) is a REPS lab affiliate and a PhD student in the UCLA political science department.

Bianca V. Vicuña (@bvicunat) is a REPS lab affiliate and a PhD candidate in the UCLA political science department.