Brown Like Me?
Vaca's argument hinges on demographics, laid out in the opening chapter, "The Latino Tsunami: The Browning of America." He cites statistics that forecast exponential population growth, which will cast California and the Southwest in an increasingly "brown" hue by mid-century, and the related "hypergrowth" of Latino communities in areas like Atlanta and Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte, North Carolina, with the influx of new, mostly Mexican, immigrants. This demographic transformation will inexorably generate increasing conflict as Latinos--who have long been underrepresented in political office, in part because immigrants can't vote, and who have long felt their concerns are not taken seriously--seek representation equal to their numbers. In cities like Los Angeles, where African-Americans wield a measure of political power, blacks are increasingly digging in to resist a numerically superior brown rival.
In Chapter 3, "Who's the Leader of the Civil Rights Band?" Vaca analyzes the landmark case Mendez v. Westminster, which challenged the existence of separate schools for Mexican-Americans and "helped lay the groundwork for the ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education eight years later." By establishing a Latino claim to a history of oppression by white America, Vaca is also trying to establish that African-Americans were not the only pioneers of civil rights struggle, and that Latinos deserve a share of the movement's benefits. Unfortunately, he uses these arguments to blame another victim: The villains invariably turn out to be African-Americans, who are threatened by demographic changes and shut Latinos out of political office, while refusing to acknowledge that anyone's suffering could ever be as great as theirs. In the chapter "Somewhere Over the Rainbow Coalition," Vaca curiously draws from the Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton classic Black Power to argue that "feel-good statements" and an idealistic "squinty-eyed view" held by out-of-touch activists "does not square with what has happened in the real world." By invoking Carmichael and Hamilton's observation that different groups in a coalition will tend to act in their own interest, he is merely invoking a tautology that could be made about almost any political coalition. Vaca goes on to cite several studies showing that in Los Angeles, blacks often block Latinos from obtaining municipal employment. This competition is "one of many examples of how zero-sum conflict trumps any idealized notion of Latino-Black cooperation." But there is no discussion in this chapter of the private sector, either with respect to the hiring practices of small businesses or with respect to falling wages, which Latino immigrants are more likely to accept than African-Americans.
All of which is not to say that Vaca is entirely wrong. Although he doesn't take into account that Mexican-American citizens are also displaced in the job market by immigrants (including fellow Latinos), and that some established Mexican-Americans do not favor pro-immigration legislation, this conflict scenario accurately represents the Latino experience in the South and Southwest. Los Angeles has seen black-Latino political conflict (and cooperation) since the early days of the civil rights movement. Although the city's eighteenth-century founders were multiracial Mexicans of indigenous, African, Chinese and Spanish blood, LA has not elected a Latino mayor in more than a century, and blacks and Latinos have often voted for different candidates. The 1965 Watts riots, a predominantly African-American uprising, focused attention on the plight of black Angelenos but not on the barrios, while the black-Jewish liberal coalition that swept Tom Bradley into power further isolated Mexican-Americans from political power. An even greater rift developed when janitorial jobs, once the preserve of African-American union members, were turned over to nonunionized Mexican immigrants by unionbusting janitorial firms. Despite Antonio Villaraigosa's strong candidacy in the 2001 mayoral race, he was not able to draw enough black votes from James Hahn, a white liberal whose father was a favorite of African-Americans.
Vaca shows that the conflict between blacks and Latinos in California is historically rooted in a dynamic that is particular to that part of the country. After it was absorbed by the United States following the Mexican-American War, the Southwest's primary racial divide was between Anglos and Latinos (and to a lesser extent East Asians), with African-Americans coming into the mix later on, beginning in the 1930s. In Vaca's account of phenomena like segregated Mexican-American-only schools and the lynching of Mexican-Americans, African-Americans are portrayed as latecomers to the West's zero-sum battle for resources. That is to say, despite African-Americans' claim to primary "minority" status, "black suffering does not necessarily trump Latino suffering."
Vaca's argument is true as far as it goes--which isn't far at all. As he points out, Mexican-Americans make up about 60 percent of the total Latino population in the United States, and their experience in Los Angeles (particularly in the neighborhood of Compton) has been marked, at times, by tensions with African-Americans. But the question of black-brown relations is national in scope, and Vaca's analysis reflects a distinctly West Coast and ultimately parochial perspective. Chapters on black-Latino political strife in Los Angeles and Houston focus almost entirely on the Mexican-American version of Latino interests. In an attempt to counterbalance this, Vaca offers an analysis of black-Latino relations in Miami (a reverse-case scenario, where the white Cuban-American elite has historically refused to share public-sector power with African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans) and, in the book's least coherent chapter, of the 2001 mayoral race in Puerto Rican-dominated New York. Miami is clearly an aberrant case, because that city's Latino immigration was dominated by lighter-skinned members of Cuba's upper and middle classes fleeing Castro's revolution, and New York's complex ethnic politics, in which Latinos and blacks have entered into various coalitions with each other and with whites, is apparently beyond Vaca's expertise.