The acrimonious relationship between Latinos and African
Americans in Los Angeles is growing hard to ignore. Although the
New Year weekend's Black-versus-Latino race riot at Chino state
prison is unfortunately not an aberration, the Dec.15 murder in
the Harbor Gateway neighborhood of Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old African
American, allegedly by members of a Latino gang, was shocking.
Yet there was nothing really new about it. Rather,
the murder was a manifestation of an increasingly common trend:
Latino ethnic cleansing of African Americans from multiracial neighborhoods.
Just last August, federal prosecutors convicted four Latino gang
members of engaging in a six-year conspiracy to assault and murder
African Americans in Highland Park. During the trial, prosecutors
demonstrated that African American residents (with no gang ties
at all) were being terrorized in an effort to force them out of
a neighborhood now perceived as Latino.
For example, one African American resident was murdered
by Latino gang members as he looked for a parking space near his
Highland Park home. In another case, a woman was knocked off her
bicycle and her husband was threatened with a box cutter by one
of the defendants, who said, "You niggers have been here long
At first blush, it may be mystifying why such animosity
exists between two ethnic groups that share so many of the same
socioeconomic deprivations. Over the years, the hostility has been
explained as a natural reaction to competition for blue-collar jobs
in a tight labor market, or as the result of turf battles and cultural
disputes in changing neighborhoods. Others have suggested that perhaps
Latinos have simply been adept at learning the U.S. lesson of anti-black
racism, or that perhaps black Americans are resentful at having
the benefits of the civil rights movement extended to Latinos.
Although there may be a degree of truth to some or
all of these explanations, they are insufficient to explain the
extremity of the ethnic violence.
Over the years, there's also been a tendency on the
part of observers to blame the conflict more on African Americans
(who are often portrayed as the aggressors) than on Latinos. But
although it's certainly true that there's plenty of blame to go
around, it's important not to ignore the effect of Latino culture
and history in fueling the rift.
The fact is that racism — and anti-black racism
in particular — is a pervasive and historically entrenched
reality of life in Latin America and the Caribbean. More than 90%
of the approximately 10 million enslaved Africans brought to the
Americas were taken to Latin America and the Caribbean (by the French,
Spanish and British, primarily), whereas only 4.6% were brought
to the United States. By 1793, colonial Mexico had a population
of 370,000 Africans (and descendants of Africans) — the largest
concentration in all of Spanish America.
The legacy of the slave period in Latin America and
the Caribbean is similar to that in the United States: Having lighter
skin and European features increases the chances of socioeconomic
opportunity, while having darker skin and African features severely
limits social mobility.
White supremacy is deeply ingrained in Latin America
and continues into the present. In Mexico, for instance, citizens
of African descent (who are estimated to make up 1% of the population)
report that they regularly experience racial harassment at the hands
of local and state police, according to recent studies by Antonieta
Gimeno, then of Mount Holyoke College, and Sagrario Cruz-Carretero
of the University of Veracruz.
Mexican public discourse reflects the hostility toward
blackness; consider such common phrases as "getting black"
to denote getting angry, and "a supper of blacks" to describe
a riotous gathering of people. Similarly, the word "black"
is often used to mean "ugly." It is not surprising that
Mexicans who have been surveyed indicate a disinclination to marry
darker-skinned partners, as reported in a 2001 study by Bobby Vaughn,
an anthropology professor at Notre Dame de Namur University.
Anti-black sentiment also manifests itself in Mexican
politics. During the 2001 elections, for instance, Lazaro Cardenas,
a candidate for governor of the state of Michoacan, is believed
to have lost substantial support among voters for having an Afro
Cuban wife. Even though Cardenas had great name recognition (as
the grandson of Mexico's most popular president), he only won by
5 percentage points — largely because of the anti-black platform
of his opponent, Alfredo Anaya, who said that "there is a great
feeling that we want to be governed by our own race, by our own
Given this, it should not be surprising that migrants
from Mexico and other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean arrive
in the U.S. carrying the baggage of racism. Nor that this facet
of Latino culture is in turn transmitted, to some degree, to younger
generations along with all other manifestations of the culture.
The sociological concept of "social distance"
measures the unease one ethnic or racial group has for interacting
with another. Social science studies of Latino racial attitudes
often indicate a preference for maintaining social distance from
African Americans. And although the social distance level is largest
for recent immigrants, more established communities of Latinos in
the United States also show a marked social distance from African
For instance, in University of Houston sociologist
Tatcho Mindiola's 2002 survey of 600 Latinos in Houston (two-thirds
of whom were Mexican, the remainder Salvadoran and Colombian) and
600 African Americans, the African Americans had substantially more
positive views of Latinos than Latinos had of African Americans.
Although a slim majority of the U.S.-born Latinos used positive
identifiers when describing African Americans, only a minority of
the foreign-born Latinos did so. One typical foreign-born Latino
respondent stated: "I just don't trust them…. The men,
especially, all use drugs, and they all carry guns."
This same study found that 46% of Latino immigrants
who lived in residential neighborhoods with African Americans reported
almost no interaction with them. The social distance of Latinos
from African Americans is consistently reflected in Latino responses
to survey questions. In a 2000 study of residential segregation,
Camille Zubrinsky Charles, a sociology professor at the University
of Pennsylvania, found that Latinos were more likely to reject African
Americans as neighbors than they were to reject members of other
racial groups. In addition, in the 1999-2000 Lilly Survey of American
Attitudes and Friendships, Latinos identified African Americans
as their least desirable marriage partners, whereas African Americans
proved to be more accepting of intermarriage with Latinos.
Ironically, African Americans, who are often depicted
as being averse to coalition-building with Latinos, have repeatedly
demonstrated in their survey responses that they feel less hostility
toward Latinos than Latinos feel toward them.
Although some commentators have attributed the Latino
hostility to African Americans to the stress of competition in the
job market, a 1996 sociological study of racial group competition
suggests otherwise. In a study of 477 Latinos from the 1992 Los
Angeles County Social Survey, professors Lawrence Bobo, then of
Harvard, and Vincent Hutchings of the University of Michigan found
that underlying prejudices and existing animosities contribute to
the perception that African Americans pose an economic threat —
not the other way around. It is certainly true that the acrimony
between African Americans and Latinos cannot be resolved until both
sides address their own unconscious biases about one another. But
it would be a mistake to ignore the Latino side of the equation
as some observers have done — particularly now, when the recent
violence in Los Angeles has involved La.
Tanya K. Hernandez is a professor of law
at Rutgers University Law School.