Interview with Tanya Katerí Hernández, Author of Racial Innocence

head shot of Tanya Katerí Hernandez
Author Tanya Katerí Hernández

Latinx Talk: Why did you write Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality?

Tanya Katerí Hernández: At the same time that our nation struggles to beat back the resurgence of overt White supremacist racism and the regulation of Black bodies, largely unnoticed are the anti-Black racist acts of non-Whites. This book focuses on that question within Latino communities. Part of the problem is that U.S. Blackness is primarily conceived of as embodied solely by English-speaking African AmericansAnother part of the problem is that Latino communities themselves marginalize or entirely erase the existence of Afro-Latinos (people of African descent in the United States whose origins are in Latin America and the Caribbean).

However, Latinos can be racists. Yet our national conversations about racism appear oblivious to this fact. Civil Rights leaders are also seemingly reticent to “air the dirty laundry” of the bias that exists within communities of color lest it distract from the “real racism” of White supremacy. However, all the while Afro-Latinos and African Americans suffer from discrimination incidents at the hands of Latinos. This is the “Latino racial innocence” cloak that veils Latino complicity in U.S. racism. In turn, the public ignorance about Latino anti-Blackness undermines the ability to fully address the complexities of U.S. racism.

I wrote the book because as an Afro-Latina, I have had the unfortunate “privilege” to be privy to the racial attitudes among Latinos, whereby assertions of being a member of a racially-mixed population lead some to believe that they are immune to racism. When I started to observe how judges and juries presented with discrimination lawsuits were confused by allegations of Latino anti-Black racism, I was inspired to bring my life experiences to bear in the analysis of these cases.

It is my hope that the book not only creates greater awareness about the complexity of societal anti-Blackness, but that it also aids legal stakeholders in more effectively enforcing our anti-discrimination laws.

Latinx Talk: What does Racial Innocence give to readers?

Tanya Katerí Hernández: The book expands our societal racial literacy. Importantly, the societal befuddlement about Blackness in Latino communities does not change the fact that Latino life circumstances are influenced not only by the social meaning of being of Hispanic ethnic origin but also by phenotypical appearance that racialize a Latino as also Black. The constrained socioeconomic status of Afro-Latinos in the United States is more akin to that of African Americans than to other Latinos or White Americans. Latinos who identify themselves as “Black” have lower incomes, higher unemployment rates, higher rates of poverty, less education, and fewer opportunities and are more likely to reside in segregated neighborhoods than those who identify themselves as “White” Latinos or “other.”

Hidden from view is the way Latino disregard for Blackness plays a role in the subordinated status of Afro-Latinos and in turn the exclusion of African Americans.

Racial Innocence excavates the otherwise silenced voices of the Afro-Latino and African American victims of Latino anti-Blackness from the case files of discrimination charges with the first comprehensive national analysis of Latino anti-Blackness in the courts and what it means for the pursuit of racial equality.

The book’s narratives show examples where: Latino workplace supervisors deny both Afro-Latino and Blacks access to promotions and wage increases; Latino homeowners turn away Black prospective tenants and home purchasers; Latino restaurant workers block Black customers from entry and refuse to serve them; Latino students bully and harass Black students; Latino educators belittle Black students; Latino police officers assault and kill Blacks; and, most heinous, Latinos who join violent white supremacist organizations and harm Blacks.

The book demonstrates that U.S. racism is complex and multifaceted, and that it is possible for a historically marginalized group—now the second largest ethnic group in the United States—to experience discrimination, while simultaneously being discriminatory.

Latinx Talk: What are you most proud of in Racial Innocence?

Tanya Katerí Hernández: I am most proud of how many readers reach out to me to express a deep gratitude for what the book offers them.  Many are visibly moved by the narratives of the victims of Latino anti-Black bias contained in the book. They are often Afro-Latino, African American, African, West Indian, and light-skinned Latinos with a deep commitment to addressing social injustice wherever it is located. Regardless of racial identification, these are readers who are relieved to finally have a resource with which to respond to the Latino racism-deniers.

Furthermore, just as Cornel West’s Race Matters (Vintage Books, 1994 & Beacon Press, 2001 & 2017) challenged the public discourse that asserted that racial differences were no longer relevant in a post-civil rights society, Racial Innocence similarly challenges the public presumption that the demographic growth of ethnicities other than African American means that anti-Black racism no longer matters. To the contrary, Racial Innocence, utilizing a Critical Race Theory legal lens, demonstrates that the growing proportion of Latinos does not determine the end of anti-Black racism as we know. The objective of the book is to aid those who care about the pursuit of racial equality, by providing a more expansive view of the greater swath of the population that is harmed by anti-Black bias and how. By contributing the missing piece of Latino agency to an understanding of the complexities of racism, social justice actors will be better positioned to be more effective in an increasingly racially diverse world. This book also thus serves as an invitation for the continued nuanced examinations of how other communities of color can be complicit in the operation of U.S. racism. In addition to social justice activists and civil rights leaders, the lawyers and judges who enforce our nation’s anti-discrimination laws will find useful insights. The book’s interrogation of the “Latinos can’t be prejudiced” defense to racism, is especially clarifying for their enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.  Educating both lawyers and judges about how Latinos are not only victims of discrimination but also part of the problem of societal discrimination, will fortify the ability of law to redress discrimination in an increasingly diverse society. It is not a cure-all, but it can certainly be part of the solution.

Latinx Talk: What prepared you do to work you accomplish in Racial Innocence?

Tanya Katerí Hernández: As Jordan Peele has so eloquently articulated for us in his films like Get Out, Us, and Nope, racism is a horror story that can read like science fiction. And like all good science fiction, Racial Innocence is part of a trilogy on Latino-origin racism. Writing volumes one and two of the trilogy prepared me for taking on the multi-headed monstrosity that is the Latino denial of racism.

Book one, Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law and the New Civil Rights Response (Cambridge Univ Press, 2013) detailed the entrenched histories of anti-Blackness that continue to wreak havoc in the lives of Afro-Latinos within Latin America, and how this reality is denied with the mythology that the racial mixture in Latin America has made the region a racially innocent multiracial paradise.

Book two, Multiracial and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination (NYU Press, 2018), used the insights from the Latin American context of the first book to deeply interrogate how the parallel U.S. discourses of mixed-race exceptionalism were similarly interfering with the effective enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

The new book, Racial Innocence, completes the “trilogy” by bringing together how Latin American racial pathologies are recreated in the U.S. within Latino communities that deny their anti-Black attitudes behind a veil of presumed mixed-race innocence. These versions of Latino “mestizaje” (racial mixture discourse) situate anti-Blackness as a North American construct learned only once in the United States when “racially innocent” Latinos encounter racist thinking for the first time. Latino racial innocence thus characterizes negative interactions with African Americans as either strictly moments of cultural misunderstanding, disputes over scarce resources, or generic interest group political skirmishes.

Latinx Talk: How is this book in conversation with current debates and discussions in Latinx and Ethnic studies?

Tanya Katerí Hernández: As the great philosopher Lizzo sang in the song Juice, “If I’m shining, everybody gonna shine.” Which for me meant lifting up the incredible talent of so many of the scholars and activists working on the issue of Blackness within Latinidad. In other words, I wanted my analysis to not only to be in conversation with Latino and Ethnic studies, but to also give greater visibility of that literature to a larger audience beyond academia.

Current discussions about mestizaje and the continued viability of a colorblind concept of Latinidad were most relevant to my exploration of how many Latinos deny the existence of prejudice against Afro-Latinos and any Latino racism against African Americans. This book contests the idea that as a uniquely syncretic, racially-mixed people, Latinos are incapable of racist attitudes, contributing to assessments of discourses of mestizaje by bringing in the insights of the legal context of anti-discrimination lawsuits.

Civil rights law is the domain in which narratives about racial discrimination are formulated, and its language effectively deployed to clarify what is racially motivated bias. The language and grammar of anti-discrimination legal cases illuminate what is often obfuscated in Latino deflection from the realities of racism and the otherwise singular focus on the White Anglo face of racism. The book disrupts a colorblind vision of Latinidad with its accounts of Latino anti-Black discrimination in the workplace, housing market, schools, places of recreation, and criminal justice context that never make the headlines but have much to teach us about moving towards a more egalitarian society.

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