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How to Make Sense of Anti-Latino Racism

Linda Martín Alcoff Dec 17

Jorge Ramos is one of the most powerful Latinos in the United States. A Mexican immigrant who is now a U.S. citizen, Ramos has co-anchored the evening news on Univision since 1986, achieving a level of trust with his viewers comparable to the iconic Walter Cronkite. He has won eight Emmys as well as numerous journalism awards, written best-selling books and interviewed every U.S. president since George H. W. Bush. In June, Ramos attended a press conference held by Donald Trump and asked Trump to explain how he could deny citizenship to children born in the United States. Instead of responding, Trump ordered him to “go back to Univision” and directed a bodyguard to physically eject him from the room. While standing in the hallway outside the press conference, considering what to do, Ramos was approached by an angry, red-faced white man who told him to “get out of my country.” 

Attitudes toward Latinos in the United States are getting worse rather than better. As our numbers grow and we become politically crucial to elections and slightly more visible in the mainstream culture, wide public support has emerged for increasing militarism on the U.S.-Mexico border and instituting routine identity checks for people who “look like” they may be immigrants. Most Latinos, particularly Central Americans, cannot pass as white, no matter how they fill out their census forms. Today the term “refugee” may in practice signify “Syrian,” but the term “illegal immigrant” continues to signify “Mexican.” 

Altogether there are 56 million Latinos in the United States, making up a little over 17 percent of the population. Given where the United States is located, people from Latin America will remain the largest grouping of immigrants. No other minority can realistically pose the threat of ballooning numbers that we can. Thus, public attitudes toward Latinos, citizens or not, cannot be disentangled from attitudes about the effects of immigration on the future of the imagined community of the U.S. nation-state.

Jorge Ramos has enough power to deflect an occasional experience with racism. In the June episode, Trump’s handlers eventually invited him back into the press conference. Mexican and Central American day laborers waiting on sidewalks for employment across the United States have it much harder. They report not only routine verbal but also physical harassment, from having soiled food thrown in their faces to being shot at. Targeted violence against immigrants has become a routine weekly story across the country, whether instigated by high school kids or those more ideologically developed. We may gasp at Trump, but the level of acceptable vitriol against anyone who suggests providing education, worker protections, driver’s licenses or health benefits — evenly privately purchased — for the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the United States has increased in both mainstream news and the halls of Congress. 

The acceptance of inflicting violence and degradation on this population is perhaps most profoundly symbolized by the continuing re-election of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who uses Abu Ghraib-style prison practices in Arizona, including public sexual humiliation. Meanwhile, the hundreds of nameless bodies and bones found every year on our southern border go unmemorialized and largely unremarked. The people to whom they belong die trying to achieve the chance to work in the United States under conditions in which Mexicans are killed in on-the-job accidents at a far higher rate than U.S.-born workers.

This looks, feels and sounds like racism, but if Latinos aren’t a “race,” should it be called xenophobia or nativism instead? The problem with using more generic concepts like xenophobia and nativism is that they don’t explain how our specific targets are chosen. Religion and geographical origin are the principle criteria that elicit anger: being Muslim from anywhere, or being from anywhere outside of Europe. 

Trump got his ideas about Mexican immigrants being rapists from Ann Coulter’s latest screed, Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole. But the essence of their views about how immigration from Latin America is an existential threat to the U. S. polity has long been argued by more putatively reputable scholars, like the late Samuel Huntington, director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs and an advisor to President Jimmy Carter on matters of national security. Huntington developed the concept of the “clash of civilizations” and his credentials lent a veneer of credibility to his claim that some cultures simply cannot be assimilated to the democratic traditions of the United States, a view one can hear widely echoed today in discourses spanning leftists such as Slavoj Žižek to right-wing pundits such as Ross Douthat. Like Coulter, Huntington placed his emphasis on the cultural threat from Mexico, arguing that Mexico has no tradition of respect for democracy, the rule of law or the Protestant work ethic.

The high incidence of worker deaths mentioned above would seem to be a contraindication of Huntington’s thesis: Mexicans are willing to work in dangerous jobs, yet the United States neglects serious enforcement of Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that could avoid accidents. So much for the work ethic and the rule of law being on only one side of the border. Nonetheless, the problems often cited with a high influx of Central and South American immigrants is their pre-modern cultures, fervent Catholicism, high birth rates, violence and corruption. Every time a liberal white entertainer, such as, recently, John Oliver, makes comic reference to the trail of dictators in Latin America, this stereotype of the region’s cultural backwardness is reinforced.

The idea that some cultures are unchangeably “backward” and hence inassimilable is the basis for the new concept called “cultural racism.” Since the end of World War II, biologically-based claims about essential behavioral dispositions have lost traction. Research in the biological sciences in particular has disproved such claims, and this, together with the association between biology-based racial ideas and Nazism, has made biological racism a tough sell in the West. It still sells, but its market share has dropped in favor of newer forms. The old idea was that basically trivial physical characteristics, such as skin color, hair type, eye and nose shape and so on, were evidence of deeper characteristics determinative of behavior, intelligence and even moral disposition. Today there is a consensus in the scientific community that these ideas are complete trash. 

Yet some believe they can impute similar deep dispositions to cultures. So the architecture of racism has simply shifted from physical bodies to cultures that are then essentialized — and often seen as static and unchangeable — in the same way. Examples of cultural racism would be claims such as “the Greeks will always be lazy,” “Arab societies will never democratize” or “Mexico will always be corrupt.” To Huntington’s credit (sort of), he believed that Mexican immigrants could “evolve” if they assimilated fully to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultures of the United States, and started, as he put it, to “dream in English.” In effect, their bodies could advance but their culture could not, so it had to be left behind. He was not a biological but rather a cultural racist. 

This is not really an advance. Biological racism was neatly disproved by advances in our understanding of how genes work and how similar the human genome is across racial differences. To contest the claims about culture there is no similar magic bullet: all we have to go on is history. The fact that all of our histories, including of course European and U.S. history, are replete with genocides, slaveries, orchestrated famines, extreme inequalities, etc., might indicate that the sort of hierarchical ranking Huntington pushed was as baseless as the old biological claims. Unfortunately, it can also lend a veneer of plausibility to cultural racism. 

To redress cultural racism we need to go to the social sciences, including history, more than to the biological sciences. The great Palestinian scholar Edward Said, who had more reason than most to be fatalist about human history, advanced a counter-argument to Samuel Huntington that is as powerful as the scientific community’s repudiation of biological racism. Diverse cultures, Said pointed out in his last book, get along much more than they fight. They peacefully coexist and deeply influence one another, as one can track in the literary and expressive forms — Said’s expertise — that mark our cultural traditions. We constantly find linguistic, religious and musical hybridity rather than separatism. Difference sometimes causes fear and repulsion, but it at least equally prompts attraction, curiosity and interest. In truth, Said held, cultures are never inviolable, homogeneous or stable, but in constant motion from both internal and external influences. 

It is cultural racism, not the diversity of cultures, that threatens the aspirational democratic values that are often articulated yet too rarely achieved in the United States. While fear is spread, our table condiments, musical styles and political assumptions indicate multiple influences and belie neatly separated categories. Immigration is not just a means to maintain the supply of cheap labor, but the conduit for fresh thinking and new cultural amalgamations. 

Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York and the author of The Future of Whiteness (Polity Press, 2015). She is Panamanian-American. 


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