By Antonio De Loera-Brus
Repealing the 14th Amendment, or at least its guarantee of birthright citizenship, has long been the ultimate fantasy of American nativists, from Stephen Miller to Ann Coulter to Joe Arpaio. You can understand why. Every 30 seconds a Latino in the United States turns 18. If they were born in the United States, that means they can now vote in the United States. Odds are pretty good they won’t feel too kindly about the people who wanted to strip them of citizenship in the country of their birth. But though the xenophobes in power wage war on mixed-status families via deportations, public charge rules, and messing with the U.S. census, repealing the 14th Amendment remains a pipe dream for the Latino-haters. Even in the Trump era, it seems that the 14th Amendment and its guarantee of birthright citizenship is one constitutional protection that Latino communities can count on.
Yet the protections and rights the 14th Amendment guarantees to the children of Latino immigrants were not born from the struggle for immigrant rights. The 14th Amendment, written in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to preserve the new freedoms of former slaves, is the result of an even longer and more brutal struggle in American history: the fight for racial justice. That fight has principally been waged by Black Americans, to the benefit of every racial minority group. The 14th Amendment is just one example among many of how Latinos have benefited from the advocacy and struggle of Black Americans.
Non-Black People of Color in America, especially those of us who are immigrants or descendants or recent immigrants, often feel like we don’t fit into the Black and White racial binaries of American history. Latinos in particular can feel somehow neutral, even alienated, from the struggle for racial justice in America, especially when it comes to fighting for Black people. Why should we who just got here, feel responsible for dealing with the legacy of wrongs committed in America long before our parents or grandparents crossed the border?
These questions are more relevant than ever. I write as another American city burns in an insurrection, sparked by the murder of George Floyd but a predictable outcome of long-term abuse by law enforcement of Minneapolis’ Black community. Where should Latinos stand in such times? Some will no doubt stand with the police, with anti-Blackness, and ultimately with white power in America. Many more will just try and stay neutral or silent, seeing just another Black-White confrontation that has little to do with us. That would be a tragic mistake.
The reality is the struggle for racial justice in America is not just a Black-White struggle, though it is undeniable that Black people have been fighting it the longest. The struggle for racial justice is what will ultimately shape Latinos’ place in America. The victories won in that struggle are the foundation of every Latino life in this country, a foundation set by Black people and which Latinos today too often take for granted. As the Guatemalan-American writer Héctor Tobar put it in his reflection on the assassination of Martin Luther King: “My family’s success in this country became associated in my mind with the blood and the sacrifice of Black people… I think every Latino kid grows up this way, in proximity to the drama of American history and its assorted players, trying to figure out where he fits in.”
Today, Latinos must choose what part we will play in this latest chapter of America’s struggle for racial justice. I hope we will choose to reject neutrality and fight for racial justice. In order to do so Latinos must fight against anti-Blackness.
We must begin by fighting anti-Blackness in our own communities. Too often we have brought with us to the United States the anti-Black prejudice that are prevalent across Latin America, which shaped the same structures of slavery and European colonialism as the United States. From Argentina to Mexico, Latin American societies are deeply racist against people of African origin. These very same societies have celebrated and worshipped whiteness for centuries at the expense of our fellow Black Latin Americans. If we can’t confront that reality, how can we begin to confront what is in front of us right here in the United States?
Non-Black Latino communities in this country also too often embrace the anti-Black attitudes, stereotypes, and world-views we find in the United States as part of a process of assimilation. This is a well-beaten path in U.S. immigrant history. Many immigrant groups have sensed in anti-Blackness an opportunity to assimilate into whiteness, or at least move into closer proximity with it. American Latinos, as the largest ethnic minority group and the largest share of today’s foreign-born population in America, must not follow this path. It would be a disaster for the cause of racial justice if we did so, not to mention a compromise with the same ideology of white supremacy that has motivated such horror on our people, from the Porvenir massacre over 100 years ago to the El Paso massacre just last year.
There is a better path to take. It may at times be harder, but it is the only one that takes us to where we truly want to go: the path to a genuinely multiracial democracy in America. And that is a path that has been established, carved out, defended by Black people. It is Black people who have always held America to task for failing to live up to its founding ideals. As Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in her essay for the 1619 Project: “Black Americans have been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”
Black leaders, activists, writers, and thinkers have left a blueprint for every American of Color on how to be American in an America that does not treat you as an equal, as well as how to fight so that it someday might. Latinos should, of course, be proud of our own part in the struggle for racial justice in America. As a Mexican-American, I personally find pride in the fact that slaves who fled bondage in America found freedom in Mexico and that the Victory at Puebla set back not just the French but also the Confederates.
Latinos should celebrate that the 1947 Méndez v. Westminster decision set the precedent for Brown v. Board of Education.
This reminds us that in the struggle for racial justice, Black people and Latino people share a common fate, as the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on both Black and Latino communities has shown. Yet Latinos must also recognize that we have, for the most part, simply followed in Black people’s footsteps when it comes to the treacherous path towards a more just America.
Today, Latinos must continue to follow Black people’s lead. That means Latinos must demand justice for George Floyd, for Ahmaud Arbery, for Breonna Taylor. Latinos must say Black Lives Matter, not just on social media, but at our dinner tables and to our families. It means mobilizing Latino political power in solidarity with Black struggles, following the example of Latino leaders such as Julián Castro and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have both unapologetically embraced the cause of ending police violence. It means recognizing and supporting Black Latinos and the full diversity of Latin American peoples, including criticizing our countries of origin when they mistreat Black people. For example, as a dual U.S. and Mexican citizen, I have a duty to criticize the Mexican government’s abuse of African migrants, part of Mexico’s shameful complicity with the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. It means condemning a U.S. President who has openly incited violence against Black people in Minneapolis, something that Latinos who remember El Paso should recognize the danger of. This is just a small part of the debt that Latinos owe Black people, for it is Black people and their sacrifices that have created the very possibility of an America in which we too can belong.
In 1968, just weeks before he would be assassinated, Martin Luther King wrote to César Chávez, the leader of the United Farm Workers, was in the middle of a 25-day fast for nonviolence.
“The plight of your people and ours is so grave,” King wrote in the telegram to Chávez, “that we all desperately need the inspiring example and effective leadership you have given.”
This acknowledgment by King of a shared struggle confirms that throughout American history, Latinos have benefited from the fight for racial justice, enjoying rights won for us by the struggles of Black people. Today, as Black people again face an onslaught of nightmarish violence, heartbreak, discrimination, and loss, it is time for Latinos to return the favor.
Antonio De Loera-Brust is a Mexican-American writer, filmmaker, and former congressional and campaign staffer from Yolo County, California. He most recently served as a policy staffer on the Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren presidential campaigns. He loves tacos, soccer, and the outdoors, and writes about diversity, farmworkers, and politics. You can follow him @AntonioDeLoeraB.