Latinos are stuck in racial limbo

By Ruben Navarrette

Laura Gomez has a funny, and yet terribly perceptive, term to describe the sort of racial holding pattern in which America’s largest minority finds itself.

“Latinos have been in this limbo between white and nonwhite – or what I call ‘off-white’ – for more than 165 years,” Gomez told me.
Off-white works for me.

Gomez, a professor of law and American studies at the University of New Mexico, might be onto something here. Latinos are neither black nor white, and yet there are black Latinos and white Latinos. There is no Latino race, yet what many Latinos were subjected to in the 20th century – including being barred from hotels, restaurants and public swimming pools – and continue to be subjected to today in subtler forms would have to be called racism. Still, in America’s great racial debate, Latinos have been consigned to the sidelines.

There is a lot that Gomez, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Stanford, could teach U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The AG isn’t a sociologist, but he played one during Black History Month. Spelling out how far we still have to go to achieve racial nirvana, Holder called the United States “a nation of cowards” who are reluctant to talk about race.

President Barack Obama recently critiqued the nation’s top law enforcement officer for his choice of words.
“I think it’s fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language,” Obama told a reporter. “I think the point that he was making is that we’re oftentimes uncomfortable with talking about race until there’s some sort of racial flare-up or conflict.”

As an Obama supporter, Gomez didn’t have any problem with the main thrust of Holder’s comments. What bothered her was that his narrative was so incomplete as to be irrelevant.
“Holder’s speech is very much in black-and-white terms,” she said. “Almost everywhere he mentions specifics, he’s talking about blacks and whites.” Like when Holder said: “The study of black history is important to everyone – black or white,” or when he rattled off a list of African-American civil rights figures as “people to whom all of us, black and white, owe such a debt of gratitude.”
It wasn’t exactly the inclusive and multiracial tone that Obama struck in his poetic speech on race in Philadelphia during the presidential campaign.

Gomez understands the context of Holder’s remarks. “Granted, this (was) Black History Month,” she said, “and there’s an important reason to talk in those terms . . . but I think it does raise a question: Where are Latinos in this?”
For Gomez, it’s a familiar story.
“We’re presumed invisible from the racial past of the United States,” she said.

Gomez mined that past in her book, “Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race,” which traces the origins of Mexican-Americans as a racial group in this country.

Today, stuck somewhere in between whites and nonwhites, Latinos are often ignored – in entertainment, politics, media, business, etc. Television networks will do a series on race or ethnicity in America, and still sketch out the storyboard in black and white. When Latinos are noticed, they’re usually a footnote, an afterthought, or an accessory – as when a well-meaning politician is talking about race relations, equal opportunity or civil rights, and mentions “blacks and whites . . . and browns.”

Another concern for Gomez is that, even when other Americans do see Latinos, a lot of people aren’t always sure what they’re seeing. Consider the immigration debate.

“There’s this almost hyper-visibility of Latinos,” she said. “But it’s a narrow and often wrong kind of hyper-visibility because it is the ‘illegal alien.’ Every Latino is presumed to be an immigrant and secondly to be an undocumented Mexican.”

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