Racial Baggage: How Anti-Blackness Travels Across the Border
The leaked audio of a conversation between Latino L.A. City Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo last October raises important questions about the enduring role of race in politics. Latinos are now the majority in cities like Los Angeles, outnumbering both African Americans and Whites. With their growing numbers come renewed efforts to gain greater Latino political representation. Given the long history of immigrant groups who adopt anti-Blackness as a strategy of upward mobility, the disparaging remarks by Nury Martinez have some questioning whether Latinos will align their interests with White voters to gain political power, seek alliances with African Americans and other people of color to combat systemic racism, or something else altogether.
The City Council scandal makes one thing abundantly clear: colorism and racism run deep in the Latino community. Anti-Black and anti-Indigenous sentiment has roots dating back to 1521 when Spanish colonizers arrived in the Americas. In colonial Mexico, a socioracial stratification system emerged placing White Spaniards and their direct descendants at the top of the racial hierarchy. Indigenous and Black persons were relegated to the bottom rungs of society. Not only do we see the impact of this colonial mentality in Mexico today, but as I detail in my book, Racial Baggage: Mexican Immigrants and Race Across the Border, colonial mentality is part of the “racial baggage” that immigrants carry over into the U.S.
Immigrants are not clean slates when they set foot on U.S. soil. Their lifelong socialization with racial norms and practices begins in their origin country. As my interviews with Mexicans on both sides of the border demonstrate, transnational migration is much more than just a story of bodies moving across the border; it’s also about racial migration – that is, the back-and-forth of racial ideologies, images, discourses, and practices across time and place. Ultimately, the racial baggage that immigrants carry with them has important implications for how they and their U.S.-born children come to see race relations in the Los Angeles communities they settle into.
The growing use of smartphones and social media apps like TikTok and WhatsApp has only enabled racial ideologies to move across borders with unprecedented ease. Racist ideologies of indigenous and Black subservience and inferiority make their way into millions of U.S. Latino households regularly tuned in to telenovelas broadcast on Univision and Telemundo. American racial ideologies also make their way into Mexican society. Given the global pervasiveness of American pop culture and the racist ideas it carries with it, individuals in Mexico are exposed to distinctly U.S. ideologies of Anglo superiority and Black criminality. This suggests that Mexican immigrants are quite familiar with U.S. racial discourse long before they set foot in the U.S.
Most of my respondents said they had never seen or met a Black person until they arrived in the U.S. My interviews revealed the extent to which immigrants’ pre-existing racial attitudes shape how they initially navigate the American racial stratification system. For Patricia, a long-term immigrant living in South L.A., the anti-Black racial baggage she brought with her was triggered by a traumatizing drive-by shooting in her L.A. neighborhood involving young Black men. The bad experiences, although rare, were relayed to other immigrants and worked to solidify preconceived notions of Black Americans as aggressive and violent. These anti-Black stereotypes had a powerful way of staying with immigrants even in the face of more positive encounters, leading to a pattern of social distancing from Black Americans. Anti-Black prejudice was further evident in the views some immigrants expressed about dating preferences and interracial marriage with Black Americans. These views were often passed down to their children. For the most part, however, immigrants maintained civility in their interracial interactions. In some instances, and over time, immigrants developed familiarity and feelings of trust and respect toward their Black neighbors and co-workers.
While some sociological literature suggests that a shared status as oppressed minorities will foster Black and Brown racial solidarity, a far more nuanced and multifaceted dynamic emerged in my interviews. As Mexicans settle into U.S. society, they undergo a uniquely American process of racialization that casts them as racially inferior and “illegal” – a status they did not contend with in the Mexican context. They come to see this “new” racialized position in relation not only to the dominant White group but to other minoritized groups like Black Americans and even U.S.-born Latinos. Feelings of disempowerment and stigma due to their perceived illegality informed immigrants’ views that they occupy an inferior status relative to both White and Black Americans, who were seen as privileged due to their citizenship status. Even in cases when immigrants such as Judith and Katy, for example, recognized similar experiences of oppression with Black Americans, they believed that the causes were different. The racialization and subordination of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. – not aspirational Whiteness – powerfully shapes the way immigrants perceived their own position in the racial hierarchy, and ultimately, their perception of commonality with Black Americans.
In the end, Racial Baggage reminds us that making sense of Latino anti-Blackness in the U.S. context requires that we think about race and racialization as a transnational phenomenon characterized by overlapping Spanish colonial and U.S. racial projects. This racial baggage, I argue, is critical to our broader understanding of how anti-Black and anti-Indigenous attitudes can endure – even in a city like Los Angeles where people of color make up the vast majority.
About the author:
Dr. Sylvia Zamora is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Loyola Marymount University. Professor Sylvia Zamora received her Ph.D. in Sociology from UCLA and a B.A. in Sociology and Latin American Studies from Smith College. She comes to LMU from the University of Chicago, where she was a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Sociology. Her research and teaching are guided by questions concerning Latino immigration and how it is changing social, political and racial dynamics in American society; she is also exploring the ongoing manifestations of African American and Latino relations in the context of major demographic shifts. Her work has been recognized with awards from the American Sociological Association Sections on International Migration, Racial and Ethnic Minorities, and Latino/a Sociology and appears in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Latino Studies and the edited volume, “Just Neighbors?: Research on African American and Latino Relations in the United States.” Her recently published book, Racial Baggage: Mexican Immigrants and Race Across the Border (Stanford University Press, July 2022), is a multi-site project in México and the U.S. that examines how racial ideologies ‘travel’ with migrants across borders, illustrating how racialization is a transnational process that not only changes immigrants themselves, but also everyday understandings of race and racism in home and host countries.
© 2023. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.