The term “race” as used in contemporary discourse, whether academic or demotic, purportedly refers to the distinct ancestry of a differentiated human population. Exactly what specific collection of features in a person’s ancestry determines his or her race seems less easy to discern from current usage. Nor can we always tell whether the elements involved in assigning a racial label to one group will correspond identically to the characteristics used in classifying another group under a different racial category. For instance, on May 12, 1977, the Office of Budget Statistics issued “Directive 15: Race and Ethnicity Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting,” which classifies the U.S. population into five segments according to origins. Unlike the Asian, Black, Native American, and White subdivisions, when it came to the “Hispanic” segment, which encompassed people of “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin,” the classification brought together various subgroups “regardless of race” (“Background: Development of Directive 15,” 1994). U.S. Hispanics thus became an “ethnicity”as opposed to the other four subdivisions that consisted of “races” in the official taxonomy that the U.S. Census Bureau would recognize. Yet, one wonders how Asian Americans can constitute a single “race” given that the configuration of ancestries and phenotypes in their midst appears at least equally diverse.

While speakers in general, from specialists to lay-people, tend to proceed as if consensus exists as to what race is, the extent to which they share a common frame of reference seems unclear (Hannaford 1996, 3). Based on the state of scientific knowledge at the time, in 1951 UNESCO issued a statement disavowing race as a reliable marker of biological differences among branches of the human population. Over half a century ago, biological anthropologist Frank B. Livingstone argued persuasively that the concept of race had been “overworked” as a measure of “human variability,” noting that “many characteristics which were thought to be racial have been found in many widely separated populations” (1962, 279–81). With the spread of information prompted by geneticists like Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (2000) about the migration of genes as our species populated the globe starting from a common point of departure in Africa, the biological commonality of humans has become uncontroversial— hence the currency of the mantra “Race is socially constructed.” Oddly, even while repeating this mantra, learned observers may still be found to reproach particular individuals or groups for failing to identify themselves racially in a manner that is supposedly more accurate or authentic. Dominicans, for instance, may find themselves admonished by other “people of color” for insufficiently stressing blackness as part of their identity. The simultaneous tendency to deny and yet affirm the existence of race corresponds to the peculiar developments that brought the word into the lexicons of modern European languages less than five centuries ago. A nebulous term for a set of discursive practices as well as lived experiences, “race” remains ubiquitous and contentious. In the contemporary United States, for instance, it crops up in discussions of national politics, law enforcement, educational standards, immigration, employment, popular culture, and entertainment, among other areas of prevailing social concern.

As a field that tackles the histories, cultures, politics, arts, social developments, and overall experience of people of Hispanic descent, Latina/o studies connects inexorably with racial matters. This branch of ethnic studies owes its birth to the racialized rendition of the U.S. experience, which, until the 1960s, had largely omitted the words and deeds of the non-white sectors of the country’s population from the conventional founding narratives of the nation. Additionally, those in the demography that Latina/o studies encompasses— namely, people ancestrally linked to Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula—hail precisely from the regions of the world where race first acquired its social significance. People of Hispanic descent inherit, as victims and perpetrators, equally virulent Spanish and English traditions of racial aggression. In view of this composite heritage, Latina/o studies offers a suitable platform for undertaking the sort of meditation that might one day help us transcend the cul-de-sac that racial conversations have reached in the United States at a prematurely announced “post-racial” moment. For instance, 2014, a year characterized by much lethal police brutality against unarmed minority males, closed with the killing of two New York City police officers, Asian American Wenjian Liu and Latino Rafael Ramos, at the hands of a vengeful African American civilian angered by the prior police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, black males from Missouri and New York, respectively. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and other right-wing militants used the occasion to blame concerned citizens who had protested unjustified lethal force by law-enforcement officers for presumably creating the “anti-police” environment that led to the deaths of the two officers.

In light of this conceptually and emotionally muddled climate, with influential voices venting antipathies instead of aiming for clarity, National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP) president Angelo Falcón (2014) decried the “broken discourse, the loss of a language adequate enough to connect racially discordant voices.” He noted how, in the absence of a meaningful racial vocabulary, we “desperately try to connect via the simplicity of the hashtag.” Falcón appealed to sobriety and reason, urging observers on all sides to find a way of speaking that might “bring us to a better understanding of the bigger picture within which we will all thrive or, ultimately, destroy ourselves.” Perhaps it behooves Latina/o studies scholars more than colleagues in any other field to act upon Falcón’s appeal with the hope of formulating and securing a salutary, inclusive language that enlightens rather than obscures. This language ought to overcome the temptation to refry the clichés that inevitably arise when speaking from the midst of the social pathologies that racial matters generate without attempting to unearth the cause of the pathologies in the first place.

A dogma begotten by the colonial transaction over five centuries ago, racism emerged to address the moral transgressions that Christian nations incurred when they claimed leadership roles in imperial domination. The conquest and colonization of the Americas involved depriving overseas populations of their lands, destroying their societies, reducing Indigenous peoples to backbreaking, coerced toil in labor camps, inclemently punishing whoever did not satisfy the production quota expected of the captives, and perpetrating genocide against any group that opposed the colonial order. In other words, the colonial transaction put conquering Christians in the position of having to do unto others much that their creed forbade them to do. Because of that moral quandary, Christians ushered in a new chapter in the history of imperial domination. Unlike previous stages in the history of conquest based on social domination and enslavement, the one marshaled by Christians insisted on representing their violent plundering of foreign societies as charitable, often depicting the injured parties as heathens rescued from the evil of their ancestral beliefs and customs. This new domination required conquerors to dehumanize the subject peoples so as to render them ineligible for Christian piety, thereby ennobling or, at the very least, justifying, the aggression perpetrated against them. The conquerors waged psychological warfare daily against the vanquished, while the apologists of the new economy assembled a colonial epistemology that construed the conquered as debased beings deserving of their plight due to moral, mental, spiritual, aesthetic, and physical inferiorities. Construing the vanquished as specimens of a lesser form of humanity persisted even after many adopted the religion of their masters and relinquished the presumed heathenism of their forebears. For instance, African-descended San Martín de Porres (1579– 1639), a lay brother of the Dominican Order in the Vice-royalty of Peru, occupied a second tier in his religious order. His race barred him from full membership. This reason was also the impediment that stymied the ascent of many Indigenous servants of the Lord, regardless of the strength of their faith or holiness of their actions.

In more recent times, when trying to express the indignation and malaise produced by the racially motivated murder of nine black parishioners at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during a Bible study session on June 17, 2015, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the killings a “barbaric crime” with “no place in our country… no place in a civilized society” (Office of the Attorney General 2015). One wonders whether the attorney general subscribes to too benign a view of civilized society. Different kinds of ingredients contribute to different civilizations. The idea that people from certain ancestral origins, when not used for slave labor, constitute an obstacle to society’s advancement was a core ingredient to the colonial civilizations that emerged in the Americas. Racial disparagement and the extreme violence that has often accompanied it have not only had a “place in our country” for centuries, but have also figured as a building block of virtually every “civilized society” that emerged in the Western Hemisphere in the wake of the colonial transaction. Twenty-one-year-old Dylann Roof, the white man who perpetrated the killings, did not target his victims randomly but did so with a clear sense of who belonged legitimately in the United States and who did not (Apuzzo 2015). When, prior to pulling the trigger so many times, he voiced the belief that blacks were “taking over our country” and “raping our [white] women,” he drew from the body of negrophobic thought to which many of the most cultivated minds of Europe and the Americas had continuously subscribed for more than four centuries. The deaths of these nine African Americans proved shocking because of the juxtaposition of violence with prayer in a supposedly safe space: the church.

It shocks no less to see the 2013 law issued by the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court to suspend the citizenship status of nearly 250,000 Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. Looking at the Court’s ruling, one easily discerns Dominican justices under the spell of negrophobic ideology that has pervaded the discourse of nationality and cultural identity in the region since the colonial period. These justices—irrespective of their phenotype—were most likely identifying with the Hispanic component of their mixed ancestry. They feared the exponential growth of a segment of the population that, according to consensus at home and abroad, is supposedly “blacker” than Dominicans. The cultural instincts of the judges seem to have been influenced by notions of race and nation promoted by former president Joaquín Balaguer, who, from 1930 to 1961, uninterruptedly served the tyrant Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Trujillo’s regime had instituted white supremacy as central to Dominican identity. Apart from just doing his job as an ideologue of the dictatorship, the negrophobic Balaguer had valid intellectual grounds for embracing the Caucasian ideal. As a man of letters who looked to the great thinkers of Latin America and the Iberian cultural tradition as a whole, he had learned the white supremacist creed taught by such seminal nineteenth-century authors as Juan Bautista Alberdi (1966) and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1915). These thinkers had equated Latin American progress with the prevalence of whiteness. The civil death experienced by the denationalized Haitian-descended Dominicans did not come from overt violence; it emerged from the pens of well-groomed, mostly mixed-race (mulatto) jurists worried about Dominicans of a despised ancestry supposedly “taking over” the country. They are ostensibly the Dylann Roofs whose weapons do not spew bullets and yet still leave behind a legacy of despair, trauma, fear, and alienation.

Racism has been and remains one of the core constituents of American civilization. We must own up to that reality and be aware of its endemic presence in our lives. Doing so is a prerequisite for taking the first steps in the quest toward achieving a post-racial society—if that is indeed what is desired. Without admitting to the horror of our beginnings as a civilization (namely the theft, destruction, murder, and mistreatment that it took to build our modern societies in the hemisphere), we will go nowhere. We will continue to restrict the field of our social action to responding to individual expressions of the problem rather than to addressing its root causes. Punishing racist acts may satisfy the dictates of the law and perhaps offers partial consolation to victims and their loved ones, but it does not address the problem that triggers the acts in the first place. Latina/o studies scholars working specifically on racial matters are uniquely poised to debate and understand the genesis of racism, as well as dissect its forms of implementation. The onus is on us to help interrupt and disable the psychological and social mechanisms that have trained vast groups of people to withhold empathy and stanch a sense of commonality across ancestral difference in their rapport with others.

Racism does not cease the moment the government of a state or nation withdraws its support for, or even criminalizes, the abuse of a racialized other. This abuse may have been entrenched in law, neglected, or ignored, or even encouraged and sanctioned by leaders and the institutions they represent. The racist who has internalized as “natural” the social superiority and ability to control people of other ancestries will most likely react with confusion or rage when confronted with the loss of such capacities. The ensuing backlash will most likely increase the vulnerability of those enjoying only de jure equality. Given that the specter of racism is persistent and intergenerational in the United States, we should not permit ourselves the folly of recognizing it only when invoking a racial lexicon or other sets of discursive practices that allude to ancestral difference in a transparent, familiar, or easy way. We should attend to its lurking presence in policies that may have a noxious daily effect, especially on people of color; these can include the closing of public schools, continued income inequality, and the practice of “stop and frisk” championed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 2015, for instance, roughly a year after completing his term as the top city official, Bloomberg could not possibly have forgotten the court order that demanded the cessation of the policy given its multiple flaws and transgressions. It had violated the law by racially profiling city residents; the overwhelming majority of the people stopped were minority males (read African Americans and Latinos). It had squandered public funds in its failure to reduce crime since the people of color arbitrarily searched by the police usually showed no sign of involvement in any criminal activity. No less important, Bloomberg’s policy further corroded the relationship between non-white communities and the police; this atmosphere of distrust worsened racial relations in the city overall. On February 5, 2015, Bloomberg offered an audience of over four hundred people at the Aspen Institute his solution to the problem of gun violence in the country: have law enforcement focus on the actions of minority males, aged fifteen through twenty-five (Herchenroeder 2015). It is as if he had learned nothing at all from the contrary evidence offered in the policy’s aftermath.

In a similar way, new awareness of voter ID laws gained currency in U.S. politics when Barack Obama, the son of a white Midwestern woman and a black Kenyan man, rose to political prominence as a credible presidential hopeful. His ascent to that top leadership role energized unprecedented numbers of citizens from communities of color to exercise their right to vote and participate in other civic processes like campaigning and fundraising. In 2008 and 2012, however, it became clear that the new laws had acted to suppress voter turn-out, in an eerie parallel to the poll taxes and literacy test requirements of the segregated South. This was the same vociferous racism that had kept Strom Thurmond, the ardent negrophobe who fathered a child by a young black domestic working for his family, reelected as a U.S. senator for South Carolina until the age of one hundred. More recently, the anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, and broadly Hispanophobic rhetoric displayed by celebrity business tycoon Donald Trump invigorated his campaign as he vied for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2015–16.

Many Latina/o scholars have tackled the thorny issue of racism within and among U.S. Hispanic populations, pointing to internalized negrophobia, anti-Indigenous sentiments, tensions with other groups, and white supremacist tendencies that inform everything from slang to hairstyling. Their findings shore up crucial areas that require further investigation. Racism, for example, operates as a pedagogy that informs the thoughts, feelings, and actions of whole societies, not just individuals. Extricating it from these societies requires an effort at least equivalent to that which racial pedagogues invested in its conception, inculcation, and maintenance. While prejudices tend to originate in the master class, which is also the primary beneficiary of their existence, nothing bars them from trickling down to the marginal and subaltern groups, since structures of socialization and schooling almost invariably come from above. The oppressed are not immune to the logic and ethos of the oppressors; nor can they assume that their manner of fighting racism will automatically be free of the danger of replicating racist paradigms and practices.

Overall, inquiries that privilege racism as the occasion wherein the abstraction of race achieves materiality, approached from the perspectives of political economy and intellectual history, have the best potential for fleshing out the subject in a manner that can advance the conversation broadly and contribute to the empowerment of diverse populations. Unlearning intolerance, especially by discarding automatic assumptions and deconstructing stereotypes, may help restore empathy and compassion across stark categories of difference. People whose ancestors have suffered dehumanization must find ways of shaking off the presumption that they are racially on the “right side” simply by virtue of their descent from victims rather than perpetrators of barbarity and destruction. As a body of knowledge, a dogma, and a set of social practices, racism pervades the atmosphere of entire societies, enveloping the vanquished no less pervasively than the vanquishers. It therefore behooves those historically inhabiting the victim’s flank to remain alert to their own potential for disempowering others as well as themselves. They ought to delink from internalized racism while affirming their ability and willingness to refrain from doing unto others as has been done unto them. Only with the humility and the forbearance that these existential exercises entail can we hope to envision an eventual post-racial society.

With this goal in mind, one could argue that the United States can epitomize greatness writ large only if it musters up the humility to be honest about its racist past. To be able to work toward the amelioration of social relations requires a recognition that awful events took place in the process of creating this grand civilization; that the ascent and well-being of some occurred at the expense and suffering of many. Finding a way to own up to that past and create a climate of respect for the descendants of victims and perpetrators alike remains both an imperative and a challenge for inhabitants of this country and the rest of the Americas.

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