In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Tanya Katerí Hernández. Hernández is the Archibald R. Murray Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law. Her book is Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Tanya Katerí Hernández: At the same time that our nation struggles to beat back the resurgence of overt White supremacist racism and the regulation of Black bodies, largely unnoticed are the anti-Black racist acts of non-Whites. This is in part because U.S. Blackness is primarily conceived of as embodied solely by English-speaking African Americans. Moreover, Latino communities themselves marginalize or entirely erase the existence of Afro-Latinos (people of African descent in the United States whose origins are in Latin America and the Caribbean).
However, Latinos can be racists. Yet our national conversations about racism appear oblivious to this fact. Civil Rights leaders are also seemingly reticent to “air the dirty laundry” of the bias that exists within communities of color lest it distract from the “real racism” of White supremacy. However all the while Afro-Latinos and African Americans suffer from discrimination incidents at the hands of Latinos who claim that their racially mixed cultures immunize them from being racists. This is the “Latino racial innocence” cloak that veils Latino complicity in U.S. racism. In turn, the public ignorance about Latino anti-Blackness undermines the ability to fully address the interwoven complexities of U.S. racism.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Importantly, the societal befuddlement about Blackness in Latino communities does not change the fact that Latino life circumstances are influenced not only by the social meaning of being of Hispanic ethnic origin but in addition by how facial connections to Africa racialize a Latino as also Black. The constrained socioeconomic status of Afro-Latinos in the United States is more akin to that of African Americans than to other Latinos or White Americans. Latinos who identify themselves as “Black” have lower incomes, higher unemployment rates, higher rates of poverty, less education, and fewer opportunities and are more likely to reside in segregated neighborhoods than those who identify themselves as “White” Latinos or “other.” Hidden from view is the way Latino disregard for Blackness plays a role in the subordinated status of Afro-Latinos and in turn the exclusion of African Americans. Civil rights law is the domain in which narratives about racial discrimination are formulated, and its language effectively deployed to clarify what is racially motivated bias. The language and grammar of anti-discrimination legal cases illuminate what is often obfuscated in societal deflection from the realities of racism and the otherwise singular focus on the White face of racism. The book uncovers the instances of discrimination in the workplace, housing market, schools, places of recreation and criminal justice context that never make the headlines but have much to teach us about moving towards a more egalitarian society.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Racial Innocence excavates the otherwise silenced voices of the Afro-Latino and African American victims of Latino anti-Blackness from the case files of discrimination charges with the first comprehensive national analysis of Latino anti-Blackness and what it means for the pursuit of racial equality. The book’s narratives show how: Latino workplace supervisors deny both groups of Blacks access to promotions and wage increases; Latino homeowners turn away Black prospective tenants and home purchasers; Latino restaurant workers block Black customers from entry and refuse to serve them; Latino students bully and harass Black students; Latino educators belittle Black students; Latino police officers assault and kill Blacks, and most heinous, are the Latinos who join violent White supremacist organizations and harm Blacks. Yet, many Latinos deny the existence of prejudice against Afro-Latinos and any “true” Latino racism against African Americans. This denial is rooted in the Latino “mestizaje” (racial mixture discourse) cultural notion that as a uniquely syncretic racially mixed people Latinos are incapable of racist attitudes. In turn, Latino mestizaje situates anti-Blackness as a North American construct learned only once in the United States when “racially innocent” Latinos encounter racist thinking for the first time. Latino racial innocence thus characterizes negative interactions with African Americans as either strictly moments of cultural misunderstanding, disputes over scarce resources, or generic interest group political skirmishes. The book demonstrates that U.S. racism is complex, multifaceted, and that it is possible for a historically marginalized group – now the second largest ethnic group in the United States – to experience discrimination, while simultaneously being discriminatory. The analysis of Latino anti-Blackness and how to properly address it, challenges our conversations about race.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938)
He was an Afro-Puerto Rican historian, writer, researcher and curator, who amassed a personal collection of 10,000 items related to Black history and the African diaspora. This was transferred to the New York Public Library and became the starting point for today's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Anani Dzidzienyo (1941-2020)
He was a foundational figure in the creation of Afro-Latino studies. As a professor of Africana studies and Portuguese and Brazilian studies at Brown University for four decades, Anani guided and inspired legions of students and scholars to ask the tough questions about race and racism in Latin America and the Caribbean, and among Latinos in the United States. The explosion in attention to Afro-Latinos today was facilitated by Anani’s perseverance in pushing beyond the common platitude that racial mixture in Latin America and the Caribbean made Latin peoples inherently incapable of racism and without fixed racial identities.
Miriam Jimenez Roman (1951-2020)
She was the Executive Director of afrolatin@forum, a research and resource center that works to raise awareness of Latin@s of African descent in the United States, and co-edited the critically acclaimed and 2011 American Book Award winner, The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. This seminal book offered insight into Afro-Latin@ life and new ways to understand culture, ethnicity, nation, identity, and antiracist politics. She envisioned and celebrated Afro-Latinidad as a field of study.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Just as Cornel West's Race Matters (Vintage Books, 1994 & Beacon Press, 2001 & 2017) challenged the public discourse that asserted that racial differences were no longer relevant in a post-civil rights society, Racial Innocence similarly challenges the public presumption that the demographic growth of ethnicities other than African American means that anti-Black racism no longer matters. To the contrary, Racial Innocence, utilizing a Critical Race Theory legal lens, demonstrates that the growing proportion of Latinos does not determine the end of anti-Black racism as we know The objective of the book is to aid those who care about the pursuit of racial equality, by providing a more expansive view of the greater swath of the population that is harmed by anti-Black bias and how. By contributing the missing piece of Latino agency to an understanding of the complexities of racism, social justice actors will be better positioned to be more effective in an increasingly racially diverse world. This book also thus serves as an invitation for the continued nuanced examinations of how other communities of color can be complicit in the operation of U.S. racism. In addition to social justice activists and civil rights leaders, the lawyers and judges who enforce our nation’s anti-discrimination laws will find useful insights. The book’s interrogation of the “Latinos can’t be prejudiced” defense to racism, is especially clarifying for their enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Educating both lawyers and judges about how Latinos are not only victims of discrimination but also part of the problem of societal discrimination, will fortify the ability of law to redress discrimination in an increasingly diverse society. It is not a cure-all, but it can certainly be part of the solution.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.