The united front

Civil Rights and Beyond: African American and Latino/a Activism in the Twentieth-Century United States
Edited by Brian D Behnken
2016, University of Georgia Press
270 pages, paperback

SINCE Hispanics passed a symbolic threshold in 2003, when their population became the largest minority in the US, thereby overtaking that of African Americans, the academic focus on the relationship between the Latino and Afro-American communities has grown.

At one level, these communities might be seen as competitors over limited social resources, while at another, they might be seen as natural allies against a waspish Anglo-Saxon establishment bent on their perpetual subordination.

There is no doubt that the Latino and Afro-American communities are very different, for historical and political reasons.

Black Americans have clearly played a greater role in shaping the modern republic, albeit from its periphery and by fighting exclusion, yet still expend considerable energy struggling to overcome the legacy of slavery in a white, often racist society.

This is reflected in greater political influence over domestic policy, with the black community enjoying a higher rate of voter registration than Latinos (and a higher level of sub-national and judicial appointments), even though in absolute terms their population is smaller.

Latinos, by contrast, fuel the immigrant economy and have grown economically powerful, able to draw upon extensive financial and familial networks that stretch across the Latin American sub-continent. Although some immigrant flows – notably that of Mexicans – have gone into reverse in recent years, Latino birth rates remain relatively high although they are now in decline.

While their backroom contribution to Democratic politics is often overshadowed by the high profile Cuban American politicians have achieved within the Republican party, Latinos have arguably achieved a greater organisational profile on the wider left and within civil society, at least in recent generations.

Moreover, the Hispanic population sits naturally at the heart of many of the most pressing foreign policy issues facing the US today – from migration to drugs policy and “failed states” – and thereby has a unique perspective, perhaps even influence, on how the US projects itself globally. It has arguably been Donald Trump’s string of insults towards Mexico and Hispanics, and not his overt anti-Muslim hostility, that has shaped global perceptions of his immigration agenda.

In the current context, such differences can inform any effort to take stock of relations between these communities and to explore situations in which their activism has come together.

Indeed, at this juncture in US history, Civil Rights and Beyond seems like one of those book that was just meant to be. The collection, deftly edited by Brian Behnken of Iowa State University, offers a valuable overview of the interactions between blacks and Latinos in the US from the 1930s to the present, going well beyond the timeframe that has hitherto monopolised academic attention to this theme – the civil rights era.

It is a fascinating read from cover to cover, but notable – and highly pertinent – contributions include Dan Berger’s examination of what the Black Power movement taught Chicago’s Puerto Rican Independentistas. This explores the rise of Puerto Rican militancy in the 1970s through the story of activists such as Oscar López Rivera, a leader of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN) and, until recently America’s most high-profile political prisoner.

It is no idle coincidence that it was America’s first black president, Barack Obama, who commuted López Rivera’s sentence, and he was released in May 2017 after spending 35 years in jail.

The Puerto Rican militancy that determined the young López Rivera’s journey from activist to revolutionary was one that developed in the hothouse of segregation and racial militancy characterising Chicago at that time.

As Berger writes: “Black Power provided the political foundation and ideological scaffolding on which this nationalism developed … In the coming years, Puerto Rican activists influenced by Black Power’s combination of pride and protest would take their place at the forefront of militant antiracism.” [pp 129–30]

Behnken follows this up with a fascinating account of the collaborative activism involving both black and Latino communities in the US that emerged following the civil rights era, epitomised by Jesse Jackson’s visionary appointment of Mario Obledo as chair of the National Rainbow Coalition (NRC) in 1987 – the first time a major organisation representing one ethnic community had appointed someone from another ethnic community to such a high position.

Coalitions, and ethno-racial solidarity – even if often plagued by frictions and organisational differences – are becoming something of the new normal in the US in recognition of the shared vulnerability of America’s minorities to the growing problem of white ethno-nationalism.

While this nationalism was traditionally reflected in such phenomena as longstanding police abuse and the challenges to public order posed by the Ku Klux Klan, today it has inveigled its way into the upper echelons of the state through the anti-immigrant populism of team Trump.

Behnken’s book suggests clearly that, as the political populists have raised the stakes, minority communities have risen to the challenge by putting their differences aside in order to join forces in confronting them. One hopes that this will be the future of activism in the US.

As the editor writes: “It is somewhat of a historical irony that police abuse and KKK racism, which seemed designed to generate discord and division, served to bring together Latino/as and blacks in a united campaign that ultimately pushed back the Klan and attempted to curb police abuse via a unified activist struggle. That example of unity continues to inform much of African American–Latino activism today.” [p 212]