The Iowa Brown and Black Forum. There it was, superimposed on the bottom corner of the screen going to commercial break just after Al Sharpton tore into Howard Dean’s affirmative-action hiring record. Hosted by MSNBC’s Lester Holt, an African-American, and Maria Celeste Arrarás, a Puerto Rican-born anchor for Telemundo, this last debate before the Iowa caucuses helped introduce a new phrase into the American political lexicon. Black and brown. “Do you have a senior member of your cabinet that was black or brown?” Sharpton prodded, and Dean turned red (again).
Although Sharpton and the Iowa group use this phrase to promote black-Latino unity, the first time I remember hearing it was when, on the occasion of the quincentennial of Columbus’s journey to the Americas (and the aftermath of the Rodney King riots), The Atlantic Monthly published “Blacks vs. Browns,” by LA Times reporter Jack Miles. In a significant challenge to the binary view of American racial politics, Miles uncovered the hidden truth about the riots, that there was substantial Latino involvement in what was widely portrayed as a black-and-white confrontation. Yet he did not regard this as evidence of an alignment of black and Latino interests. On the contrary, he predicted that “America’s older black poor and newer brown poor are on a collision course.”
According to Miles, the civil rights era coalition between blacks and Latinos was threatened by an emerging class conflict. Fearful of the “nihilistic” tendencies in black urban culture, he claimed, white and Asian employers were increasingly passing over poor blacks in favor of Latino immigrants, who were willing to work for lower wages. “Blacks are the most oppressed minority, but it matters enormously that whites are no longer a majority,” wrote Miles. “And within the urban geography of Los Angeles, African-Americans seem to me to be competing more directly with Latin Americans than with any other group.”
A year earlier, Charles Kamasaki and Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza had published a groundbreaking paper that corroborated Miles’s argument. Yzaguirre and Kamasaki recounted several instances when African-American leaders had failed to support Latino causes. The NAACP opposed an extension of the Voting Rights Act that benefited Latinos in 1975, while the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights opposed a similar extension of the act in 1982. The NAACP declined to oppose employer sanctions under the Immigration Reform and Control Act; throughout the 1980s the LCCR was indifferent to increasing protection for Latinos against employment discrimination, while only nominally opposing the English-only movement. The paper concluded that “growing tension between the two communities…threatens the ability of blacks and Hispanics to develop strong, sustainable coalitions.”
These ominous predictions are echoed in Nicolás C. Vaca’s new book, The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America. But unlike Miles and Kamasaki and Yzaguirre, whose arguments he cites, Vaca, a lawyer and scholar based in the Bay Area, wants to posit the adversarial aspects of the relationship between blacks and Latinos as a fact of life. In making this argument, Vaca, who fancies himself a maverick, claims he is simply facing up to realities that Latino intellectuals and activists have sidestepped because of “knee-jerk,” “politically correct” assumptions about black-Latino solidarity. He is so convinced of this that he lost an old Latino friend in a public argument over whether to write this book.”Why dig up dirt,” writes Vaca, “ruffle feathers, destroy the illusion of unbroken unity between Blacks and Latinos, bleeding the colors of the Rainbow Coalition by giving the dreaded gringo the ammunition my former friend told me I was providing? The simple answer is that the ethnic landscape has changed.”