restricted access 77 Our Next Race Question: The Uneasiness between Blacks and Latinos
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77 OUf Next Race Question: The Uneasiness between Blacks and Latinos JORGE KLOR DE ALVA, EA~L SHORRIS, AND CORNEL WEST The angry and confused discourse about American race relations that followed the O. J. Simpson trial may have been passionate, but it blindly assumed (as if the year were 1963 or 1861) that the only major axis of racial division in America was black-white. Strangely ignored in the media backwash was the incipient tension between the country's largest historical minority, blacks, and its largest future one, Latinos. In fifteen years, Latinos (known to the U.S. Census as Hispanics) will outnumber blacks, as they already do in twenty-one states. Each group constitutes an ever greater percentage of the total population; each is large enough to swing a presidential election. But do they vote with or against each other, and do they hold the same views of a white America that they have different reasons to distrust? Knowing that questions of power and ethnicity are no longer black-and-white, Harper's Magazine invited three observers-a black, a Latino, and a white moderator-to open the debate. EARL SHORRIS: To begin, would you both answer one question with a yes or no, no more than that? Cornel, are you a black man? CORNEL WEST: Yes. SHORRIS: Jorge, do you think Cornel is a black man? JORGE KLOR DE ALVA: No, for now. SHORRIS: Apparently we have something to talk about. Jorge, can you tell me why you say, "No, for now?" KLOR DE ALVA: To identify someone as black, Latino, or anything else, one has to appeal to a tradition of naming and categorizing in which a question like that can make senseand be answered with a yes or a no. In the United States, where unambiguous, colorcoded identities are the rule, Cornel is clearly a black man. Traveling someplace else, perhaps in Africa, Cornel would not necessarily be identified as black. He might be seen as someone of mixed African descent, but that's different from being identified as black. Copyright © 1996 by Harper's Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduced from the April issue by special permission . Copyrighted Material Our Next Race Question 483 Cornel is only black within a certain reductionist context. And that context, where color is made to represent not so much the hue of one's skin as a set of denigrated experiences -and where these experiences are applied to everyone who ever had an African ancestor-is one I consider to be extremely negative. WEST: I think when I say I am a black man, I'm saying first that I am a modern person, because black itself is a modern construct, a construct put forward during a particular moment in time to fit a specific set of circumstances. Implicit in that category of "black man" is American white supremacy, African slavery, and then a very rich culture that responds to these conditions at the level of style, mannerism, orientation, experimentation , improvisation, syncopation-all of those elements that have gone into making a new people, namely black people. A hundred years ago I would have said that I was a "colored man." But I would still have been modern, I'd still have been New World African, I'd still have been dealing with white supremacy, and I would still have been falling back on a very rich culture of resistance , a culture that tried to preserve black sanity and spiritual health in the face of white hatred and job ceilings. I think Jorge and I agree that we're dealing with constructs. And I think we agree in our objections to essentialist conceptions of race, to the idea that differences are innate and outside of history. KLOR DE ALVA: What advantage has it been, Cornel, for blacks to identify themselves as blacks? WEST: For one, that identification was imposed. We were perceived as a separate peopleenslaved , Jim Crowed, and segregated. To be viewed as a separate people requires coming to terms with that separateness. This category "black" was simply a response to that imposition of being a separate people, and also a building on one's own history, going back to Africa, yes, but especially here in the United States. So when I say, for example, that jazz is a creation of black people, I'm saying that it's a creation of modern people, New World African people. And we've come up with various categories, including black...