Racial innocence is the greatest obstacle to justice

Iit was a moment of intense frustration and anger.” Those are the words of former Los Angeles City Council Speaker Nury Martinez as she tried to explain her litany of racist comments about Councilman Mike Bonin’s black child and migrants from Oaxaca, at the Mexico, captured on a secret LA Municipal Commission recording released October 9, 2022. Martinez has now resigned from the Commission, but his apology, crafted and delivered under the guise of racial innocence, has provided important insight into the contours of the anti-black Latino bias and on how inadequate our national pursuit of racial equality is at present.

“Frustration and anger” does not exempt you from racism, and racial innocence is not a benign mental state. It is an obstacle to justice. Moving forward in the pursuit of racial justice will require that we recognize racial innocence for the fiction that it is and come together to educate ourselves about the wholeness of anti-darkness.

There are a lot of Nury Martinez. When it comes to racism, Latin American culture encourages a mindset of racial innocence in which real racism is only what white-English-speaking American residents commit. Any anti-black sentiment and action that Latinos participate in is dismissed as a cultural misunderstanding, an extension of pre-existing racism in the United States, or an uncommon momentary lapse. Racism is not what Latinos do.

But they do. In fact, Latino anti-Blackness is not limited to the United States 90% of the 10.7 million Africans forcibly brought to the Americas as survivors of the Middle Passage were taken to Latin America and the Caribbean , unlike the 3.5% taken to what we now call the United States After the abolition of slavery, state actors and white elites maintained hierarchies of color and exclusion with a racialized logic regarding the inferior intellect of black people and the cultural shortcomings of indigenous communities. This racial logic continues to be perpetrated today to such an extent that it materially impedes Afro-Latinos and Indigenous peoples from socio-economic progress.

Read more: The disturbing legacy behind LA Councilwoman Nury Martinez’s racist remarks

When Latinos enter the United States, their racial baggage accompanies them and continues to be passed on to younger generations as part of Latino culture. As an American-raised Afro Latina, I have too often heard a parent say, “Look behind the ears,” fearing that a newborn baby has the potential to develop a dark complexion. But the Latin family’s vigilance against Darkness doesn’t stop at inspecting the ears. There is a vampiric attention to exposure to the sun which can deepen the darkness and thus “worse” a child’s appearance.

Even Latinos who are supposed to be blessed with European characteristics are controlled by their families when it comes to dating and marriage. The obsession with mejorando and adelantando la razaor “improving and advancing the race”, by marrying lighter (ideally whiter) partners, means that every potential suitor is screened for the taints of Blackness.

My own journey collecting stories from victims of Latino anti-Blackness across the country revealed that anti-Black Latino prejudice in the United States causes lasting wounds. However, the cultural self-image of Latinos as racially innocent interferes with the handling of cases in which Latinos are agents of racial harm. Indeed, racial innocence hampers self-recognition of the problem and the motivation to make the changes necessary for racial progress. Instead, derisory rationalizations like “an intense moment of frustration and anger” are offered.

Apologies and the resignation of Nury Martinez from the world are insufficient instruments to dismantle systemic racial innocence and create social change. Instead, we need to improve our racial knowledge about the nature and extent of global anti-darkness.

For too long, Afro-Latino voices have been sidelined from Latino public discourse. Because Afro-Latinos stand at the intersection of blackness and Latino ethnic identity, they not only experience Latino racial hostility, but also experience its logic in ways that are not necessarily readable to non-Latinos and non-black Latinos. It has left Latinos, as a collective, blind to their own anti-Black attitudes in their engagement with the world. Afro-Latinos are an important but overlooked resource in the fight against racism, and there is already (and growing) literature written by Afro-Latinos dedicated to expanding our racial literacy.

Additionally, creating space for Afro-Latinos within Latino leadership circles is another critical step in the fight against racial innocence. Consider how much more nuanced and profound public policy deliberations could be if more Afro-Latinos were present at all levels of government, in addition to nonprofits, businesses, and the media. Rather than juxtaposing the needs of Latinos as a zero-sum competition with African Americans, the Afro-Latino voice could help show how much our communities need to work together. Coalition attempts are strengthened when internal racialized hierarchies are made visible and dismantled.

To be clear, ignoring the global aspects of anti-darkness will not dissolve systemic racism. This might seem like an obvious statement to make, but in my experience, it’s not obvious enough.

In fact, a number of invitations I received to share my Afro-Latin expertise for Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations suddenly evaporated when I revealed my topic on Latino anti-blackness. Diversity, equity and inclusion representatives from law firms and financial institutions alerted me that they wanted to “go in a different direction” after learning what I wanted to convey. In short, they preferred a racially innocent Hispanic Heritage Month presentation.

Opposing racial innocence involves the whole nation, not just Latinos. A racial calculus without an honest questioning of the multidirectional aspects of racism is an anemic pursuit of racial equality that hampers the dream of true democracy.

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