My parents are a Chicano and a Chicana. One was born in the United States and one in Mexico. Both were raised in El Paso, Texas, a town that predates the United States and was established by Spanish missionaries and conquistadors and their Tigua-Pueblo allies who fled the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Both my parents graduated from Ysleta High School in El Paso and were employed at a textile mill near their home that in the early 1970s was in the midst of a tense labor strike. As their economic standing became increasingly destabilized by that struggle, they decided to move with their infant daughter, my sister, a thousand miles away from the desert Southwest to the upper Texas Gulf Coast. Their destination was Baytown, a blue-collar town of roughly 50,000 residents twenty-five miles east of downtown Houston and around eighty miles from the Louisiana state line.
My parents were part of a wave of migrants to Baytown all seeking economic opportunities in its booming oil-refining industry and contributing to Houston’s growth into the nation’s fourth-largest metropolitan region. That wave included Latinos/as from across the U.S. Southwest as well as from Mexico and Central America, African Americans and whites from across the U.S. South, and black immigrants from Caribbean islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Lucia, and Saint Croix.
I was the first of my parents’ three children to be born in Baytown. The first fifteen years of my life, my formative years, were spent in a large apartment community on Baytown’s eastside built to accommodate the town’s booming working-class population. African American families were the predominant residents in that community, along with a handful of Latino/a families like mine, a few black families from the Caribbean, and a few white families. The demographic make-up of my childhood community was far different from the place my parents came from, a place where the vast majority of the population was Mexican, Mexican American, or Native American.
The social climate was also quite distinct. Baytown is a quintessential southern and Gulf Coast town, established originally by European settlement and the removal or elimination of the indigenous Karankawa. It is steeped in a history of stark black-white tensions originating in the mid-nineteenth century when it was inhabited only by white slave owners and black slaves on cotton and rice plantations. My childhood apartment community was just a stone’s throw from where the region’s largest slave plantation once operated and near the spot where one of the region’s and nation’s first and largest freedmen’s settlements thrived after the emancipation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, still commemorated as Juneteenth.
This particular setting of black history, culture, and politics bore a strong influence on how I experienced and understood the social significance of race in ways that made me different from my parents. Like many Latinos/as, a genetic link to the black diaspora was already a part of my family’s ancestry prior to Baytown, a product of slavery in Latin America. It was, however, the symbolic or discursive blackness of the South, derived from African American history—from the experiences, survival tactics, and cultural adaptations of the descendants of that region’s slave population—that most strongly influenced how I have envisioned and navigated my place in the world as a boy and man of color.
The experience has made me marginally Chicano. It is also a reason that as a darker-hued Chicano I have commonly been confused by whites, African Americans, Asian Americans, and especially Latinos/as as a lighter-hued African American. The confusion, however, was more the product of performed rather than embodied signifiers of difference. My southern origins, evident in my accent, language, and other regional traits have never been easy to conceal, even when I have attempted to do so.
I moved from the South to the Southwest in the early 1990s and later to Southern California at the dawn of the new millennium, and I now live in the Midwest, in Chicago. My latinidad has been scrutinized by Latinos/as in these other regions as peculiar if not inauthentic. When I was a graduate student and activist on the West Coast in the early twenty-first century, these traits were commonly a source of suspicion for Chicano/a activists. I was never Chicano enough for them, always too black to be trusted as representative of La Raza, and commonly ridiculed by Chicano friends and by family members as negrito, moro, or, in the worst case, mayate. I did my part to attempt to reconcile this tension by supporting Chicano/a political causes, embracing and promoting Chicano/a culture, and mimicking the speech and accents of my father and uncles, old-school Chicanos. But these attempts invariably felt like a performance, more rehearsed than natural.
A friend exposed my fraudulent Chicanismo in 2004. Trey was reared in Beaumont, Texas, another blue-collar oil boomtown in the Gulf South just up Interstate 10 from Baytown and nearer the Louisiana border. Our friendship was based largely on our similarities. Trey and I share the same phenotype and build. I am a darker-brown Latino with a Hispanic surname. He is a lighter-hued African American, a self-described French-speaking Creole with a French surname. I am not Spanish and he is not French. Our racial and ethnic categorizations are the product of overlapping Spanish, French, and U.S. colonialisms that have structured the region of our birth and upbringing. Our phenotypes are the product of intermixing Native American, African, and European genetic traits. Trey and I look so similar that we have been commonly mistaken for twin brothers, a mistake we have often manipulated for amusement. Despite this corporeal similarity, we have been assigned to separate racial categories in the United States and within its racial hierarchy, a kind of taxonomy that has been particularly significant to and in our lives. Besides those corporeal and historical similarities, what bonds Trey and me most strongly are our similar subjectivities.
This bond was manifest in a unique way in 2005, in a moment when Trey felt that I was dismissing its significance by reinventing myself as a different kind of political subject and for selfish reasons. He happened to overhear a conversation I had with a white colleague of mine in which I had described myself as a “proud Chicano.” Trey interjected by asking the question, “A what?! Da hell is that?” I explained to him that despite our similar origins, I became a “Chicano” when I lived in the Southwest and California and largely through my experiences as a student and activist. In response Trey commented, “Boy please . . . you ain’t nothing but a swamp nigga just like me.” He was problematizing my Chicanismo.
The term “swamp nigga” contains a word that is polemical within debates regarding black politics. I am not validating it and I try not to use it. I do, however, understand its meaning, and it is a term that I commonly used among peers when I was a kid in the South. Trey’s description of me as a “swamp nigga” in that peculiar moment to counter the term “Chicano” is an intriguing intervention. I knew precisely what Trey was talking about and why he communicated to me in that way in that moment, and it actually brought me a degree of relief. For one, he was bringing me home, away from the geographic settings of the U.S. Southwest and West Coast to the swampy soils of our home region. On the other hand, he was disassociating me from Chicano/a history and culture. This disassociation is not as easy as Trey perceived it to be, as my parents and extended family are indeed Chicanos/as, and hence, Chicano/a history and culture are a part of me if I choose to emphasize that particular kind of identity. Trey, however, was correct in that I was also distinct from my parents and more like him in many ways, our bond the product of shared experiences, memories, and knowledge derived from life in the southern Gulf Coast during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
In retrospect, Trey’s intervention reflected the tension between traditional and organic intellectuals that Antonio Gramsci made famous in his theory of cultural hegemony—only in this case, the tension was inside me. I gained most of my knowledge about the historical and political significance of Chicanismo through Chicano/a studies courses in college. That education helped me better understand my indigenous connection to North America, my parents, and their generation in addition to conquest, genocides, borders, Manifest Destiny, and the plight of the “undocumented,” all conditions that are significant to the Southwest and to those territories that Chicano/a activists call Aztlán, the ancestral homeland of Chicanos/as.
By the time I learned about this history, I had already gained a sharp understanding of white supremacy and the social meaning and significance of race. That understanding came before college, before my introduction to Aztlán, and arose from simply being a youth of color in the South, that is, from being the social type that Trey was describing me as. Baytown was the place where my parents migrated in order to fulfill their American dream. It was where they chose to start their family. Twentieth-century industrial towns and cities in the United States have often served that role for the historically disadvantaged. People migrate to those places from across the world. They are places of hope and of new beginnings.
Baytown made some things better for my parents. Jobs within the local oil and chemical refining industries provided them with opportunities and resources they were denied as children. My siblings and I ate better and dressed better than my parents did when they were kids, and we had access to schools with better resources. These were all signs of progress in their eyes. When I air any bitterness about conditions of inequality in my hometown, my mother, always the optimist, often reminds me, “Yes, but we have much to thank Baytown for.”
I understand her perspective. She lived her entire childhood as an undocumented immigrant and as part of the peasantry of the borderlands, on both sides of the border. Both of my parents came of age during the post–World War II and civil rights era and at the start of the Cold War. They were American patriots and fully invested in its capitalist ethics. My mother recalls being inspired by President John F. Kennedy while in high school and was a youth member of the League of United Latin American Citizens in El Paso. My father was also a big JFK fan. Both were deeply saddened by his assassination when they were teenagers, sensing that it signified a lost opportunity for inclusion. My father’s patriotism was always associated with a critique of communism. “A real American,” my father often told me, “is willing to work hard to earn a buck.”
His patriotism was very much influenced by his father, a soldier in the U.S. Army who participated in and survived the infamous D-Day invasion at Normandy Beach during World War II. My grandfather was living in Mexico in 1944 when he received a letter informing him to report for military service. He rented an apartment in El Paso just so he could enlist. Weeks later he was in France in battle against fascism and was wounded while defending his troop from a German tank attack. He died just years after returning home to his family in El Paso. My father was four years old, thus never getting to know his father very well. My widowed grandmother raised my father and his three brothers as a migrant farmworker in West Texas on a cotton picker’s wages and her deceased husband’s military pension.
Like so many Latino/a and African American World War II war veterans, my grandfather also had his heroism suspended. When he died in 1948 he was denied a military burial due to segregationist policies in the U.S. military during the late 1940s, a segregation that was a major impetus for civil rights activism across the South and Southwest. In December 2012, sixty-nine years after he was wounded by Nazis in France, the military posthumously awarded Private Juan C. Márquez the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals. The medal ceremony took place at Fort Bliss in El Paso and made news headlines across the nation. A U.S. Army representative told the Associated Press, "Juan C. Marquez exemplifies the citizens our nation sent to liberate the world from tyranny."
Although I never met my grandfather, his presence has loomed large in my life due to his significance to my father. My father’s primary memory of his father was that he was an American hero, a man who paid his dues so his family could access the American dream. In my father’s eyes, Baytown’s industries provided a context for the fulfillment of that dream. He took pride in being a provider, a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party, and a blue-collar worker. He insisted on American flag decals as the only adornments on his hardhat and lunch pail. I’ve never met a person more patriotic.
There were things about life in Baytown, however, that were nightmarish. Baytown provided ample work opportunities but was also rife with racial tensions that originated in slavery and were normalized during the town’s industrialization in the Jim Crow era. Those tensions were transposed over generations as part of the town’s status quo, its social order.
The spatial and temporal lines of racial segregation were clearly drawn when my parents arrived in Baytown in the 1970s. Those tensions were pronounced in the industrial workplace, where men of color like my father had to cope with routine insult and marginalization. My parents were a Latino and Latina from the Southwest whose lives were being strongly influenced by African American history in the South.
My parents were certainly not naïve about race. They just migrated to Baytown from a place with different racial dynamics, ones that generally played out in tensions among Latinos/as and associated with the politics of citizenship and nationality, the kind of borderlands community that Gloria Anzaldúa has described as a wound that could not and would not heal, a place that will always be a grating edge of U.S. imperialism. The South, their newer hometown, signified a different kind of wound, one inflicted primarily by slavery and what Saidiya Hartman describes as “its afterlife.” Despite how hard my parents worked, how much they contributed to the economy, and how patriotic they were and despite the sacrifices made by people like my father’s father, the South’s history and social climate routinely exposed them to a kind of indignation that ultimately drove my father mad.
We all saw it coming. My father was not the kind of person who could suffer indignation in silence. He was as much the warrior as his father. His patriotism prevented him from admitting that capitalism was flawed, that the years of hard labor were not fulfilling to him in the ways that as a younger man he imagined they would be. By the time he was of late middle age, the cruelty of capitalism, its unfulfilled promises, and the multitude of hours he spent at the refinery and not with his wife and kids were wearing him down. He was depressed, angry, bitter, and impatient.
Much of his hostility was vented against persons he commonly referred to as “rednecks,” stereotypical southern white men who remained explicitly dedicated to the racial segregation of old, the kind of men who flew the Confederate flag with pride and enjoyed acting like frontiersmen on their days off from work. Those men symbolized the grandest obstacle to his happiness. In his eyes, they were the primary obstacle to his American dream.
The rebellion stirred slowly, capitulating in routine tensions with local law enforcement authorities that on one occasion nearly cost him his life, leaving him and us badly wounded. The rebellion ended where they so often do, in a cage alongside so many other men of color within the Texas penal system.
I was named after my father and he after his father. They were both Juan, and I am John, the name change a reflection of a common immigrant story. When I was a child my nickname was “John John,” which my parents appropriated from JFK’s oldest son, also a John Jr. yet another slice of Americana. The names of my grandfather, my father, and me vary only by dialect. Our experiences have not varied by much.
Each of us has been wounded at or by wars motivated by racist ideology. I was coming of age during my father’s rebellion. It all began to unfold during my late teen years. The destabilization of my family in my father’s absence allowed for his anger to slowly become mine. I did not blame him for our situation. I blamed capitalism and white supremacy, two trademark characteristics of my blue-collar hometown in the South.
This was in the early 1990s, a time when local industry was in peril and jobs were less available, thus making it easier for me to disinvest in my father’s blue-collar American ethos and seek an alternative way of being and knowing. I was not the only one in rebellion. The sons and daughters of those black and Latino/a men and women who came to Baytown in the 1970s to fulfill the American dream faced an unsettling horizon. They/we were full of rebellion and angst, sentiments we mistakenly too often exercised against one another in street violence.
The local police department responded with full force by declaring a “war on gangs,” using our displaced anger, our inter-and intra-tribal warfare, to legitimate a kind of violent segregation that many in our town always longed for—to preserve a kind or racial status quo in the South that Clyde Woods has described as the postbellum “plantation bloc.” Regardless of whether one was a gang member, we were a criminalized generation of black and Latino/a youth. One need not be victimized by violence in a literal sense to have been traumatized by it. Our friends were dying, we witnessed gun violence, and some of us participated in it.
I fled Baytown in the early 1990s, scarred psychologically and physically by its street and police violence, exhausted by the routine of death, mourning, and hopelessness, and not wanting to submit to life at the refinery or a prison cell. I ended up at a university in my parents’ original hometown thanks in part to the sport of football and to a group of educators and social workers who were desperately trying to interrupt the school-to-prison or -refinery pipeline. I fled in search of answers, leaving behind my family and burdened with a load of guilt that remains. I was introduced to the paradigm of Chicano/a studies at that university. As a result of higher education I found myself negotiating two understandings of race, one visceral and the other more academic, each more relevant to a certain space and set of circumstances. This book is the result of that negotiation, my attempt to redefine a tension as an emergent site of political possibility, a kind of complexity and diversity that is likely within all of us despite the ethnic and racial compartments to which we are assigned.
Prior to college, blackness was very much the frame through which I understood race and its effects, a frame that was particularly influenced by African American history. My firsthand exposure to black nationalism was especially significant. In the late 1980s I recall running into representatives of the Nation of Islam (the Fruit of Islam, or FOI) at various social events across Houston. On one occasion FOI members came to our apartment complex and other neighboring “hoods” in Baytown to recruit working-class black and Latino/a youths to their cause. I remember being incredibly inspired by them and yet not quite knowing what to do or if I should join them. I was too young to decide. It was my first exposure to men of color wearing sharp suits and speaking with a sophisticated intelligence about things that I felt deeply—a fear of police officers, neglect by the public school system, the trauma of rampant drug and alcohol abuse in our community, the horrors of gang violence, the shame of poverty and of being dark.
Soon thereafter I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book my father, an avid reader, bought for a dime and brought home from his monthly trip to a bookstore in Baytown. I remember him telling me, “Mijo, this guy’s story is interesting. It gives you a different point of view of life in this country.” It did indeed. I vividly understood the kinds of psychosocial obstacles Malcolm described in his journey from being a boy to a man of color in the United States. Perhaps my father anticipated this and used Malcolm’s narrative as a method to help him open my eyes to race and racism in this country. I was of darker hue than he, and my understanding of such matters might vary from his, a variation enhanced by my being reared in the South, where anti-black racism was particularly prominent and to an extent carried over to harm us as Latinos/as as well. Pops is no longer around for me to ask him more about his intentions. Que en paz descanse. I more than appreciate his efforts, all the subtle ways he guided me as a young man in this world.
The inspiring presence of the FOI and Malcolm X’s influence were reinforced by Rastafarian men in my neighborhood. Their families had migrated to Baytown from the Caribbean during the 1970s in search of oil-refinery jobs. I recall that my sister and I were awestruck by the presence of rastas. On some long, hot summer days we would sit, often for hours, in our second-story bedroom staring out our window and anticipating when the rastas would walk by. Their linguistic patois, long dreadlocks, and vivid critiques of Eurocentrism made them seem like black superheroes in a world that reduced youths of color like us to social problems and offered little sense of empowerment beyond jobs at the local refinery, gang life, or athletics.
There was plenty of latinidad or Chicanismo within our home, evident in the food we ate, in the pachuco-tinged borderlands Spanish (Caló) that my parents spoke to one another, in our Mexican Catholicism, and in other ethnic customs. That private latinidad was not generally reflected in the public domain. Most of my peers at school were either black or white, and all my classmates from our apartment community were either African American or the children of black Caribbean immigrants, people we called “island folk.” There was certainly no attention paid to Latino/a history or culture in the public schools I attended, schools named after white men who were the original slave and plantation owners in Baytown, heroes from the Texas war for independence, or Confederate war heroes. The most famous Latino civil rights leader, César Chávez, was an unknown figure to me until I enrolled in those aforementioned Chicano/a studies courses in college. When I first heard of him I thought one of my favorite professional boxers, Julio César Chávez, had retired from the sport and was now working as an activist on behalf of immigrant rights. My maternal grandfather would tell me stories in Spanish about Pancho Villa and later when my grandfather worked on a ranch, but my deficiency in the Spanish language caused me to misjudge or discount Villa’s significance. I often assumed that Villa was just another colorfully criminal friend of the family who might spontaneously show up at the next wedding or funeral.
Che Guevara was the closest to a Latino political hero I knew about during my childhood in Baytown, and even then, I assumed he was black. Initially I believed he and Bob Marley were the same person: the first image of Che that I came across was a cartoon interpretation on a T-shirt sold at a local record store. The shirt was displayed near the “world music” section at Evolution Tapes and Records where images and albums of Marley proliferated. Even after I learned that Che and Bob were not the same person, I still thought the former was a reggae music singer due to my general ignorance of Latin American history. I didn’t know what tune Che sang, but Bob’s tunes pulsated through the thin walls of the apartment community where I lived, the deep and melodic bass lines of Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Marley’s bassist, often rattling our pictures on the wall. Marley’s songs about mental and spiritual emancipation appeared to inspire residents of our community in profound ways.
My pre-college knowledge of Latino/a history was thin. I, however, was well versed in the significance and biographies of persons such as Fredrick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and Thurgood Marshall. I learned as well about influential elected officials like Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland who had participated in Houston's considerable African American civil rights activism. Much of my knowledge of black history and politics came from curricula of the local public schools. Most of it, however, I learned from just living in the South in a poor and predominantly African American neighborhood. I knew more about local freedmen’s colonies established in the 1860s and 1870s than I did about any historic barrio or pueblo in the Southwest, even the one my parents were from.
Artists like Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Ice Cube, X Clan, and the Geto Boys provided the images and words I would appropriate in learning how to cope with racial injustices. I was very much of the hip-hop generation, an avid participant in this culture when it was based on improvisation, turning scraps into art pieces, blurring gender lines with our fashion and hairstyles, using our bodies as musical instruments that called truth to power—the language and domain of poor or working-class youths of color prior to its acquiring the name “hip-hop” and prior to its commercialization, prior to the Beastie Boys and its evolution into pop culture. The gangsta-rap group N.W.A. was particularly influential to me in the 1980s, my formative years, as a result of growing tensions between my community and the Baytown Police Department, namely in its “war on gangs.” In addition to Malcolm X’s autobiography, N.W.A.’s song “Fuck the Police” captured everything I knew and felt about being racially profiled by law enforcement agents, educators, and other authority figures, about feeling susceptible to marginalization and state-sanctioned violence simply because of how I looked or where I lived. When N.W.A. member Ice Cube rapped “young nigga got it bad \'cuz I’m brown,” I knew exactly what he meant. The “brown” signified an experience that was not unique to blacks or Latinos/as but reflected a certain kind of unsettling and anxiety-ridden vulnerability, an expendability derived from the production of brownness as a signifier of deficiency and criminality. The signification originated from a set of historical and contemporary circumstances associated with the settler-colonial society and the moment we were born into, an experience that made Trey and me feel like brothers, that made me feel like a younger brother to Ice Cube, even though we had different parents, ancestries, and ethnicities. We indeed had had it bad because we were darker and lighter shades of brown, and that badness and brownness bonded us all—at least in my imagination.
Blurring Blackness, Brownness
Building on Trey’s intervention, his blurring of the border between black and Latino/a subjectivities, and the inspiration of gangsta rappers like Ice Cube, in this book I examine the historic and contemporary circumstances that have produced recent fusions of black and Latino/a subjectivities in the Houston metropolitan area. Some of those fusions have resulted in expressions of political solidarity or collective resistance of the two groups, a counterhegemonic assemblage. In this interdisciplinary study I analyze expressive cultures, ethnographic data, popular media, historical archives, oral histories, legal documents, and theories about racial power to argue that Houston’s location on the southern Gulf Coast and its history as a region shaped by racial dynamics of the Old South have created a condition through which blacks and Latinos/as have shared a common experience as targets for state-sanctioned racial violence and numerous other forms of discrimination.
That shared struggle has produced a wariness of racial power—or a subjectivity—that often bonds the two groups together politically. These bonds are evident across a diverse discursive terrain including recent grassroots, activist, and antiracist movements in Houston-area communities like Baytown, in youth gangs, and within expressive cultures such as hip-hop. Blackness—in this case, as more a symbolic than embodied difference—has served as an important adhesive in that bond because of what I argue to be its function as a universal signifier of opposition to whiteness from which Latinos/as often draw strength. Blackness, however, also attains this influence due to the role popular culture has played in advancing black politics and due to misconceptions about the origins of Latino/a, Asian American, Arab American, and Native American histories.
Before exploring the ways black and Latino/a subjectivities have been in dialogue, the importance of race in their constitution needs to be scrutinized. Critical race theorists Barnor Hesse and Denise Ferreira da Silva have shown that race has been a central characteristic of European modernity, a language and knowledge form produced to undermine the promise of universal rights of modern, liberal nation-states and to enable white privilege. This certainly has been the case in the United States despite its being commonly mythologized as a flagship for egalitarianism in the world. The definition and self-definition of U.S. political groups as racial or ethnic draw attention to these contradictions and the lingering effects of slavery, imperialism, and settler colonialism. Such conditions deserve recognition in any discussion regarding subjectivities within the United States and especially as they pertain to the phenomenon of racial politics.
The concept of “subjectivity” here varies from that of “identity”: the latter is a more common term used to describe how oppressed groups relate to oppression. Identity is a static concept suggesting a fixed and homogeneous social consciousness unable to maneuver through time, circumstance, and discursive schema. The concept of subjectivity complicates this description and the presuppositions that structure its political significance or meaning. "Subjectivity" is a term that was introduced by Michel Foucault as a critique of neo-Marxist conceptualizations of the relationship between the state and ideology by Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. While the term "identity" is used to fix a gaze upon the oppressed in order to understand relations of power, Foucault developed the term "subjectivity" to call critical attention to oppression itself and to a wariness of power within the psyches of individuals in society. This wariness is irreducible to a “modes of production narrative” and instead reflects an array of oppressive or controlling conditions, disciplinary processes based on the meanings ascribed to bodies, spaces, and behaviors and the normative discourses and social categories in which they are situated. Foucault describes these processes as “subjectification,” also commonly referred to as “subjection,” a condition or modality of power that is also a component of what he has called “governmentality” and that, more importantly, generates subjectivity in discrete ways according to time and space.
Although race was never central to Foucault’s conceptualizations, they are still useful for understanding the effects of subjectification on the domain of racial politics in modern nation-states. Kelly Oliver has effectively argued the importance of scrutinizing subjectivities in debates regarding oppression within colonial or postcolonial formations. Likewise, subject positions cannot be delinked from subjectivities if one is truly interested in unveiling the ways any form of oppression, and more specifically those forms that qualify as violently traumatic, shape the agency and imagination of the oppressed and ultimately influence the multiple ways they produce and perform racial politics in the public realm. An analysis of subject position without critical scrutiny of how the psyche interprets and shapes behavioral responses to injustice results in a depiction of the other or subaltern as a mere artifact of victimization and not as an active agent who participates in and often restructures the domain of politics. Oliver explains that subjectivity “is experienced as the sense of agency and response-ability constituted in the infinite encounter with otherness—the realm of ethics. And although subjectivity is logically prior to any possible subject position, in our experience, the two are always interconnected.”
Considering such an interconnection, my primary goal in writing this book is to demonstrate how collective memories of similar forms of subjection have functioned as an imaginative adhesive that often bonds the subjectivities of two racial subject positions, black and Latino/a, resulting in a compound subjectivity as well as a transracial and transethnic subject position from which blacks and Latinos/as can and often do collectively engage in new forms of resistance. These compounds have become more frequent due to demographic shifts caused by the global political-economic demands of neoliberalism often referred to as "globalization" and the broader assortment of time and space compressions neoliberalism has produced. Neoliberalism has intensified the rate at which information is exchanged and the transnational immigration patterns from the global South to the global North. It has initiated new patterns of residential segregation in cities in the urban North within which many immigrants from the global South have taken up residence as neighbors of existing minority groups.
It is estimated that up to a third of the human population is currently in motion or engaged in the process of migration across national borders. The current massive flow of people across borders—despite the militarization of borders in the global North to prevent it—represents the largest and most intense migration of human beings in world history. It is, moreover, a condition that has been produced by an assortment of displacements associated with neoliberal and global capitalism, or what David Harvey has described as a post-1970s “regime of flexible accumulation.” People are leaving Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East in record numbers, and their arrival in cities across the United States, Canada, and Europe is reconfiguring the social and political climates of their new home spaces. These structural changes have been enhanced by advancements in information technologies during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that have amplified transnational, intraminority, and interminority conversations if not understandings.
In the Houston area the Latino/a population has grown fast since the late 1970s due in large part to increased immigration from Latin America. Working-class Latinos/as have often linked themselves to U.S. black oppositional cultures, and to memories of anti-black racism in the U.S. South in particular, to cope with having their own civil and human rights suspended within that region. My scrutiny is conducted within the context of the rapid growth of the Houston area’s Latino/a population in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and I also pay special attention to deeper historical patterns and processes that pertain to the region’s black and Latino/a communities.
In this book I examine how, concurrent with the more recent growth of the Latino/a population, working-and middle-class blacks have often incorporated Latino/a causes, persons, communities, and acts of anti-Latino/a injustice into their critiques of racial inequality. There is evidence that blacks have envisioned the increased presence of Latino/a immigrants and Latino/a population growth at large as an opportunity to destabilize the hegemonic influence of whiteness to unprecedented levels in communities within which they have been struggling against racial injustices for significantly longer than have their newer Latino/a neighbors. Rather than being seen as a condition that weakens or dilutes black politics, Latino/a growth is often seen as a condition that strengthens and expands it. As Latinos/as have increasingly fallen victim to conditions that have long been defining characteristics of the black experience, blacks have taken these instances, along with the increased size of the region’s nonwhite population at large, as offering more compelling evidence of the moral and ethical crises that have been imposed and sustained by the normative discourse of white supremacy.
Within those visions and political strategies lie fusions of subjectivity and overlappings of subject positions that call attention to the similar space that blacks and Latinos/as have occupied in the racial hierarchy, or what Michael Omi and Howard Winant might describe as the “racial formation,” of the Houston area. These fusions illuminate the influence of black history and culture on the subjectivities of nonblack yet also nonwhite peoples. This influence is important considering that African Americans now comprise a shrinking percentage of the U.S. polity, while the Latino/a population continues to increase through immigration and birth rates. It is important to note that immigration from the Caribbean, mainly Jamaica and Haiti, and from Africa, primarily Ethiopia and Nigeria, has been the major impetus behind black population growth in the United States over the past two decades. These more recent transnational realities tied to late global capitalism necessitate that we, now more than ever, look beyond the black•white binary when assessing the social meaning of race in the United States, as that binary often limits our focus to relationships between African Americans and whites in singular locales. I map out a new terrain here, underscoring the expanded political significance of African American history beyond African Americans and providing a serious theoretical scrutiny of the conditions that have made that history so influential in debates about race, an influence that has often resulted in the histories of Latinos/as, Asian Americans, and Native Americans being neglected.
Lastly, I focus on the fusions of black and Latino/a subjectivities that complicate how the subjectivities of those two groups tend to be analyzed and politicized. Both in scholarly and media discourse, these subjectivities are generally viewed as a product of “majority-minority” and “intraminority” relationships, while relationships between minority groups and those relationships forged by dynamics that transcend and travel across national borders are given less attention. This limited scale of inquiry frequently discounts what Avery Gordon has described as the “complex personhood” of the oppressed. With that term Gordon seeks to complicate the popular perception of the oppressed as mere artifacts of victimization by accentuating how the oppressed fabricate complex narratives of coping, survival, and resistance that reflect the social agency they retain despite their aggrieved conditions and reflect spatial and chronological specificities. In sum, the oppressed or historically disadvantaged retain the ability to shape how they see and are seen by the rest of the social world despite how others may perceive them to be. This happens through the multiform narratives and political imaginaries they enact to respond to multiform experiences of oppression.
Gordon's term “complex personhood,” then, represents a contrast to the condition that Homi Bhabha has referred to as “imaginative fixity.” “Complex personhood” calls attention to an array of effects produced by oppressive conditions. Bhabha, on the other hand, defines “imaginative fixity” as a debilitating representation and controlling image of the subaltern similar to the concept of “identity” that is “dependent on the concept of fixity in the ideological construction of otherness.” As it applies to my analysis of black and Latino/a subjectivity, an imaginative fixity discounts or even disregards the ways the multiform cultural performance of blackness and the unification of black and Latino/a politics become the dominant catalysts for a subjectivity that transforms blackness from a marker of racial oppression into an inclusive formation that decisively transcends the racial boundaries of its original denotation.
This position regarding the relationship between Gordon's "complex personhood" and the dynamism of racial subjectivity is inspired by and reminiscent of arguments advanced by Bhabha, Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Nestor Garcia-Canclini, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Walter Mignolo regarding the notion of hybridity, the symbolic blurriness and structural rigidity of borders, both literal and figurative, or “hybrid cultures” within debates about multiculturalism and postcolonialism across the global North. In the work of these scholars, the abilities of individuals assigned to subaltern groups to draw from an array of knowledges, experiences, and epistemologies in the constitution of their subjectivities make the individuals less manageable by colonial powers. Similar to interventions in the field of queer theory, hybridity thus creates new visions of and for social change and even an alternative ethics that resists the normative discourses controlled and manipulated by the state and enables the oppressed to cope with and often resist oppression. Hall, for example, describes these fusions as “new ethnicities” that are reshaping our understanding of racial and ethnic politics across the global North in particular and within the context of the conditions associated with neoliberalism. “In late modern times,” he explains, “identities . . . are increasingly fragmented and fractured; never singular but multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions.” As a result, Hall argues, monolithic or static representations of identity (or presumably even of subjectivity) should be avoided in favor of representations that reflect chronological, discursive, and geopolitical specificities.
This hybridity is not to be confused with conditions of racial blending, the mestizaje or mestiçagem that is commonly cited as a condition of embodied racial complexity in Latin America. Within that representation, a sense of political solidarity or resistance across racial lines is routinely presupposed as inherent to political subjects because they derive from a genetic mixture of Native American, European, and African progenitors. The kind of hybridity I examine here is not a corporeal or genetic one; in fact, it conflicts with the popular idea that a recent increase in biracial births is destabilizing the stress on rigid racial uniformity that has characterized U.S. racial order from the outset. By contrast, the hybridity that I privilege is one that springs from shared forms of subjection and that is manifest in subjectivities. This hybridity reflects how shared memories, wariness, experiences, and desires often bond subaltern groups across those racial, ethnic, and even national boundaries that the state and its legal apparatuses have erected to exert control over how race is politicized. Those bonds among subaltern groups or blends of their subjectivities do not represent resistance in and of themselves. However, these bonds often result in a type of collective consciousness or hybrid subjectivity that is capable of unsettling the racial/colonial architecture that remains fundamental to or foundational within modern states across the global North and despite postcolonial or postracial proclamations. Edward Said explains that Europe discovered itself through colonial encounters. The sovereignty of modern social formations or nation-states required the creation, categorization, and policing of difference.
Hybridity theory, put simply, suggests a kind of complex personhood that retains the potential to disrupt such categorization and/or colonial assemblage. It refers to a politics of self-determination that conflicts with the political recognition sanctioned by colonial authorities, meaning it grates against a kind of representation that is designed primarily to remind the subaltern of his or her perpetual deficiency and political inefficacy:
No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale.
But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental.
This hybridity is not to be confused with what is often described as “multiculturalism” or the normative management of “unity” that characterizes much of the post–civil rights discourse regarding racial or ethnic diversity in Europe and the United States. Liberal multiculturalism is a mere discursive reconfiguration that has had little or no effect on the structural force of race. Rather, it reproduces the existing hierarchy under a discursive guise and maintains a sense of ethnic (Eurocentric and Anglo American) if not racial (white) uniformity as the foundation to which effects of “difference” are merely added as afterthoughts. As Manuela Ribeiro Sanches explains, “Unity defines itself against hybrid spaces. The concept of hybridity is significantly absent from Eurocentric discourses, which tend to promote an idea of diversity understood as the addition of new cultures rather than innovative ways of thinking about and living with difference.” Applying this critique to my focus on black-Latino/a hybridity in the United States, I am not making a case that Latino/a causes have been merely added onto political debates and civil rights discourse regarding racial inequality that are generally limited to black-white tensions and are popularly perceived as more central and significant to the U.S. political culture. To regard Latino/a causes as merely an addendum, an appendage to racial politics, belatedly and only recently added onto more important ongoing conversations, would be to discredit the dynamism and complexity of Latino/a history in the Houston area and more generally.
To be sure, Latinos/as did not arrive in the Houston area only recently, and many of them are not immigrants from Latin America. They have an extensive history there beginning in the early twentieth century, and they have developed their own methods of survival and resistance to racial injustices over time. But it is also true that throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Latinos/as were a much smaller group than were blacks, and anti-black racism was the most rampant and influential condition structuring the climate of racial politics in the region. This arrangement was true up until around the late twentieth century, when the a surge in immigration from Latin America and consequently a rapid growth of the Houston area’s Latino/a population stirred an increase in anti-Latino/a racism by those who were dedicated to maintaining a status quo of white privilege. Much of this increase was made visible through a rise in anti-Latino/a police brutality, a specific condition of oppression that is privileged in this book’s analysis. The Houston area’s urban development can be narrated as having originated in stark black-white tensions but then extending into tensions of black and Latino/a versus white, a proliferation that has placed black and Latino/a subjectivities in closer proximity to one another.
As a result of this history and symbolic compression of subjectivity, the area has produced its own hybrid subjectivities that destabilize, disrupt, and complicate much of the conventions through which subaltern lives are analyzed, understood, and even politicized and that tend to destabilize the existing racial hierarchy. Similar to what Bhabha, Emma Pérez, Walter Mignolo, and Nelson Maldonado Torres have argued regarding decolonial knowledge, the hybridity that I privilege in this book calls attention to new political possibilities, emergent political cultures and languages, changing interpretations of existing terms and categories, and fresh engagements of racial politics for both groups.
Decolonial knowledge is a system of representation or counterhegemonic discourse in emergence. It is dynamic, improvisational, and produced by detecting, exposing, and subsequently naming the sustained horrors of white supremacy in the United States. Decolonial knowledge represents a space of emergence and untapped potential. It represents a response to Fanon’s driving question of “In reality, who am I?”—a question that derives from the alienating effects of settler-colonial formations, that is, from the ways such formations depend upon condemning subjections and concurrent imaginative fixities that dislocate the subaltern from himself or herself. Self-determination, the capacity to define who we are, how our subjectivities spill over the compartments designed by the state to harbor or segregate them, how we envision and speak about relations of power based upon our own sets of complex memories and experiences, does not represent resistance per se. But it does call attention to conditions from which new forms of resistance can and will emerge. Hybrid subjectivities are a component of decolonization in how they unsettle and destabilize the protocols through which social truths, categories, and processes are sanctioned and thus through which settler-colonial formations are disciplined and controlled.
This book is then a narrative of decolonization that highlights how shared and often traumatic memories of discrimination have provided the impetus for black and Latino/a imaginations and subjectivities to amalgamate and mutate in the production of decolonial critiques of racism. Hip-hop culture, grassroots activism, and even youth gang culture have often provided the space for such mutations, resulting in new expressions of racial knowledge and politics that complicate conventional conceptual models for assessing the social meaning of race.
There are specific types of oppression that I feel are particularly generative of these mutations. While they may not fit neatly within debates about colonialism or postcolonialism, the examples of hybrid black and Latino/a subjectivity that I accentuate are the product of an interdependent cultural, political, and economic oppression that Foucault famously has described as the productive capacity of contemporary biopower. However, the lived experience and cultural-political expressions of these positionings that I describe as a fusion of black and Latino/a subjectivities speak to a transindividual subjectification that constantly overruns the grasp of such biopower. Their fusion should be understood, in Michael Hardt’s more pronounced contemporary distinction, as the product of “biopolitical militancy.” The term critiques a normalized and deeply entrenched regime of institutionalized and disciplinary mechanisms of oppression, a determined and comprehensive surveillance of deviance from sovereign authority within modern liberal states across the global North. Such a regime has been buttressed by an omnipresent threat of combined police and military violence since the 1980s that should be considered part of the broader reconfiguration of the global and neoliberal political economy.
The 9/11 tragedy has played a significant role in exacerbating biopolitical militancy to the extent that theorists including Giorgio Agamben, Henry Giroux, Jacques Derrida, and Foucault, in newly published lectures, have called attention to a shift toward a new form of global authoritarianism or even the advent of protofascism characterized by new suspensions of civil liberties, the further blurring of the lines distinguishing military control from law enforcement, and the deployment of hypersurveillance by the neoliberal state that is directed primarily at subaltern populations. Claudio Colaguori has referred to this as the origination of the “hypersecurity state,” and Gilroy has more recently referred to it as “securitocracy.”
In the United States this protofascist turn has only exacerbated the disparaging meanings ascribed to the bodies and behaviors of blacks and Latinos/as as a method to segregate them within the settler colonial architecture. The most evident result has been the mass incarceration of people in these two groups in particular and their frequent obliteration as a consequence of “zero tolerance” wars on gangs, immigration, and urban crime since the late 1980s.
Most of the persons described in this book are either Mexican American or African American. And yet the forces that I find to be influential on hybrid black and Latino/a subjectivities have also structured the experiences, memories, and subjectivities of black and Latino/a persons from the Americas and Africa who reside in the Houston area and beyond. Consequently, I generally opt for the terms “black” and “Latino/a” in this book to accentuate an oppressive articulation of racial power, a kind of subjection, a modern knowledge form that functions without much regard to ethnicity, nationality, or even class. As mentioned and for added clarity, the definition of "race" that I use in this book is most influenced by Denise Ferreira da Silva and Barnor Hesse, who consider race to be a defining attribute of European modernity that produces and is produced by a collective desire to identify difference in bodies, spaces, and behaviors. Race, in this conceptualization, is irreducible to a mere social construction that is produced to justify conditions of economic exclusion or political marginalization. It is also irreducible to a mere corporeal or primordial category of human difference. Instead, race is modern social knowledge itself produced to generate conditions of inequality primarily in its capacity to inflict and justify death, in union with other categories of difference that attain a disciplinary power.
One condition I specifically seek to complicate in this book is the general tendency of scholars and media analysts to perceive black and Latino/a subjectivities or even identities as inherently separate and subject only to majority-minority or intraminority influences. I describe this limitation as “ethnic compartmentalization.” I use this term to specify how much of our knowledge about race in the United States has been fragmented into a series of parallel, vertical, and seldom intersecting binaries between whites and certain nonwhites whose experiences are generally encapsulated by an ethnic signifier that is harbored by national borders: African American, Mexican American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, or Latino/a.
Compartmentalization largely results from the racial power movements of the 1960s when group histories and causes were essentialized through the language of cultural nationalism to gain visibility amid a diverse assortment of minority-rights initiatives in the United States. African American studies and Latino/a studies are themselves academic interdisciplines born from this activism, and activism has in turn significantly influenced the ways subjectivity is analyzed in these studies. In sum, African American and Latino/a studies originated with the responsibility of recouping lost racial histories and representing the subjectivities of subaltern populations that had long been neglected in critical media and scholarly discourse.
The political purpose and design of these fields, therefore, has something akin to a built-in propensity toward statism and ethnic uniformity and a somewhat limited capacity for analyzing and theorizing of race across national borders and racialized groups. The existence and purpose of each relies upon accentuating the uniqueness of the designated ethnic group, upon a politics of recognition, with less attention to forces that make them less than exceptional. Conditions like hybridity, the result of amalgamated subjectivities catalyzed by a shared susceptibility to racial oppression, are then routinely discounted or even ignored in expert analysts’ discussion of the social meaning of race. The emphasis has been on single-group representation.
One can read this influence across the literature produced within each field. For most of the 1970s and 1980s, for example, black and Latino/a subjectivity was generally represented by academics via the image and perspective of a nonwhite, working-class, heterosexual, male activist or victim who represented a clear antithesis to white slave drivers, colonizers, conquerors, or statesmen. Much of the “movement” historiography—books published from the late 1960s into the 1980s on the civil rights and racial power activism of the mid-to late twentieth century—can be characterized as such. The literature tends to reflect worlds within which only African Americans and whites or Latinos/as and whites reside and privileging the perspectives of heterosexual men. Certainly a history of rigid segregation helped to implant and standardize these analytic frameworks, resulting in real demographic binaries.
The lives of the subaltern, however, have always been far more complex and dynamic, and their communities generally have been far more diverse. Neoliberalism has only intensified this dynamism and complexity. In the late 1980s scholars working within African American and Latino/a studies began to break up that uniformity by means of intraminority foci as they paid more critical attention to class, gender, and sexual divisions within minority groups. They also began to highlight transnational dynamics that challenged the boundaries of ethnic nomenclature.
However, the critical edge of these fields seems to have paused there. In the field of African American studies, black subjectivity continues to be generally assessed on how it is shaped by relationships among African Americans and whites, African Americans and other African Americans, African Americans and Africa, and African Americans and a black diaspora that spans centuries and continents. While these perspectives continue to raise critical awareness about black history and politics and about black people the world over, not much attention is given to how relationships of blacks (be they African American or not) and their Latino/a neighbors, classmates, and co-workers affect their subjectivities and hence the ways they engage in racial politics on a local level. This limited perspective undermines the dynamism and complexity of black subjectivity and curtails an understanding of black politics. Additionally, knowledge about racial phenomena, abilities to heal traumas wrought by white supremacy and settler colonialism through the production of new knowledge and political visions, and an ability to draw attention to the grounds for more progressive interminority alliances are all limited by what Sharon Holland describes as “subconscious machinations to disremember a shared past,” which she cites as a characteristic of the “American political imaginary.”
More recently, the field of critical ethnic studies has been developed as a challenge to this and other limitations of “ethnic compartmentalization.” This new paradigm focused attention on the existence of hybridity by looking across and beyond ethnic and national boundaries to gauge the social meaning of race in modern social formations and by comparatively linking histories of violent oppression in particular as a comprehensive critique of European modernity. The critical ethnic studies paradigm made racial subjection and subsequent oppression, rather than any particular racialized and ethnic minority group or human subject, a central object of inquiry and paid better attention to regional and chronological specificities in addition to structural and symbolic shifts associated with neoliberalism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This turn reflected Hall’s suggestion that racial dynamics are best understood as producing a “politics of representation” rather than as evident in “relations of representation” between minority and majority populations. Hall’s intervention asks us to envision identity or subjectivity as produced within historically and geographically specific configurations of representation and discourse rather than as something that in itself produces those phenomena.
This point of conceptual departure is reflected within the critical ethnic studies paradigm in that it looks less at who a race or racial group is, what its “identity” is and/or its particular interests, and more at what race does to the social world, how it fragments one's subjectivity internally, how it produces categories of being and differential experiences with what are designated as “rights,” how it produces space, how it allocates people to categories and spaces, how people inhabit those categories and spaces, and what they do to manipulate their meanings in performances of racial politics. While it is more common, for example, to examine how Latinos/as produce or engage in politics, it is also vital to understand how racial politics produce Latinos/as and their subjectivities within a much more expansive matrix of power and epistemologies. The critical ethnic studies approach, in its gaze away from the racialized human subject (the victim of racism) and toward the productive and disciplinary power of race and its consequences, allows us to better understand how race works in union with other discursive practices to structure hierarchies, systems of dominance, categories, identities, and subjectivities that can be unique according to time and space. Considering this, as the goal of previous generations of African American studies or Latino/a studies scholars has been to delink race from biology, the goal of new and future generations of scholars working within these fields has been and must be to further delink race from ethnic categories, from a corporeal gaze, and from geopolitical boundaries such as nations in order to more critically comprehend its salience, that is, the ways race structures social life.
In the United States this type of transethnic and transnational scrutiny has helped to decolonize ethnic studies and its compartmental configurations and shed a more critical light on the origins and nature of racial injustices, often resulting in a better awareness of how to address and combat them for the betterment of society at large. While practices like racial profiling are commonly represented in the media and in scholarship as victimizing African Americans, and for good reason, the critical ethnic studies approach allows us to see how such practices similarly victimize Latinos/as and—since 9/11—South Asian Americans and Arab Americans. Comparably, while the civil or human rights of immigrants are commonly debated only as they pertain to Latinos/as, the plights of millions of African and black Caribbean immigrants tends to be ignored.
Beyond Black versus Brown
The critical ethnic studies paradigm has encouraged comparative and/or interminority analyses as a method to accentuate the diversity of geographical locations where most minorities live and to show how hybrid subjectivities problematize the politicization of conditions like multiculturalism and contribute to a decolonial turn. The comparative approach deepens understanding of certain kinds of racial injustice by illuminating how those conditions are not and never have been exclusive to any “minority” group’s experience. Analyses of black-Latino/a relationships have become increasingly important in this regard due to the growth rate of the Latino/a population since the 1980s. There are now more people in the United States who speak Spanish as their primary language than there are in Spain. The post-1980s Latino/a population surge is the foremost reason that at the turn of the twenty-first century Latinos/as surpassed African Americans as the largest racial/ethnic minority group in the United States for the first time. They have also done so in many cities, including Chicago, New York, and Houston, where blacks and more specifically African Americans have traditionally been the largest and most politically influential minority group. Most scholarly and journalistic analyses of these historic demographic shifts contend that they have pitted blacks and Latinos/as in a fierce struggle over scarce jobs, housing, social services, electoral seats, and even criminal markets. These claims are generally produced by the logic of resource competition, a sociological model contending that the subjectivities of political groups stem exclusively from group competition over material resources.
The January–February 2004 issue of the NAACP periodical The Crisis Magazine focuses on black and Latino/a relations and explores the social and political shifts. Its cover depicts two young and apparently angry men, one black and one Latino, in what might be an advertisement for an upcoming boxing match. Beyond the logic of resource competition, this imagery seems to follow a tendency to view black and Latino/a politics through the limiting perspective of working-class and heterosexual men as well as stereotypes that often depict those actors as savage warriors.
While The Crisis Magazine offered some attention to black-Latino/a coalitions, the selection of that image for its cover reveals a deeper dilemma. It sheds light on the tropes of pathology and chaos that have influenced academic discourse regarding poor people of color in the United States. The profound emphasis on black-Latino/a conflict reflects a media model that presumes that a fight is more exciting to watch than a friendship, especially when the fight involves two subjects who have been demonized as the scourge of white America to the extent that blacks and Latinos/as have and who, if united, could have a transformative effect on U.S. politics. The statistics regarding each group’s “quality” of life are quite alarming. Blacks and Latinos/as represent not only the two largest racial minority groups but also the two most impoverished, politically underrepresented, undereducated, environmentally sickened, police-brutalized, and incarcerated groups in the United States. They tend to share space in neighborhoods, jobs, and schools of most U.S. cities, a proximity that continues to intensify. There is a vast array of phenomena to consider when debating the origins or causes of these conditions. It seems safe to presuppose, however, that they are some of the many by-products of an enduring history of institutionalized anti-black and anti-Latino/a racism. The logic for political coalitions of blacks and Latinos/as is quite compelling inasmuch as members of the two groups recognize the sources of much of their deprived livelihoods, and this recognition registers as an essential component of their subjectivity. I presume that this recognition is not rare even if or when it is not acted upon politically.
Media and academic discourse on black-Latino/a conflict suggests that the two groups generally lack this recognition or the capacity to achieve it. These stereotypical depictions reveal a deep-seated characterization of racial others in the United States as problems, as W. E. B. Du Bois asserted more than a century ago. More recently, Stephen Gregory has critiqued the gaze of social scientists on the black urban poor for its tendency to “only reinforce stereotypes about urban poverty, pathology, and chaos” while overlooking the vibrant ways the poor often survive and resist injustice and their sophisticated understanding of relations, as evident in the activist coalitions they build across gender, class, and ethnic boundaries in their home spaces. This “agency-oriented” perspective has done much to advance an understanding of majority-minority and intraminority relationships. We should presume that this perspective could do the same for a clearer understanding of interminority dynamics. However, only sparse literature advances the perspective. With this book I attempt to help fill that void. In it I privilege moments and spaces that emphasize the complex personhoods of blacks and Latinos/as, and I convey a more agency-oriented perspective on how those two groups negotiate their similarities and differences in shaping a collective oppositional consciousness and culture.
The discourse on black-Latino/a conflict that I work against here reflects other discursive pressures, if not even political strategies, for maintaining white hegemony in what has been called this “post–civil rights” era. In the current moment, tales of minorities fighting over scraps fit neatly within the hegemonic discourse of postracialism and the more specific problem of "racial fatigue," a term I am introducing to describe a mental state originating from a popular belief among the U.S. polity that the United States has done all it can to address and remedy its history of racial inequality. Racial fatigue causes people to cringe at contemporary reminders that much work remains. Combined with the dominant tropes and stereotypes regarding the racially aggrieved that Gregory and others have critiqued, especially blacks and Latinos/as, the racial fatigue of many Americans thus may make black-Latino/a conflicts more revealing or important. Some people have grown so tired of blaming whites for racism that revealing how people of color oppress one another has become something of a cottage industry in academe and the popular media.
The literature on black-Latino/a conflict often manufactures, exaggerates, or overlooks data regarding the impact of the Latino/a boom on black unemployment, Latino/a voting habits, and black and Latino/a gang violence. In 2008 it was widely suggested that Latinos/as would not support the presidential campaign of Barack Obama because he was black. Ultimately, strong Latino/a support has been cited as one reason Obama won that campaign over Republican candidate John McCain. There are also widespread misconceptions regarding black versus Latino/a competition over jobs.
Although Latinos/as and especially those who are immigrants are commonly depicted as stealing jobs from blacks, the steady loss of black jobs in recent decades has been the result of industrial downsizing and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to the global South. Moreover, the most influential factor in high rates of black unemployment has been shown to be deeply rooted anti-black stereotypes harbored by some employers. By comparison, increased competition for jobs created by Latino/a population growth has had only a minimal effect on black joblessness.
Some analysts have gone so far as to blame Latinos/as for a skyrocketing black prison population. George Borjas, Jeffrey Grogger, and Gordon Hanson argue that Latino/a immigrants taking black jobs is a primary reason many blacks had no choice but to turn to illegal activities such as making and selling crack cocaine for economic survival. To argue that Latino/a population growth is the reason for high rates of black imprisonment overlooks the fact that the Latino/a prison population is skyrocketing as well.
A popular argument has circulated that Latino/a gangs immigrated from Latin America into the United States to practice “ethnic cleansing” as a method to eradicate black gangs from territories they seek to make their own. To critique the ethnic-cleansing rhetoric surrounding gang violence, criminologist George Tita told a reporter, “You don’t see these major black-brown wars, either within the context of gangs or outside the context of gangs.” In an earlier news story Tita said the vast majority of gang homicides are black on black or Latino/a on Latino/a. Latino/a on black and black on Latino/a violence is extremely rare but receives far more attention because, as Tita explained, “the rare events are more newsworthy.” Residents of Los Angeles–area communities have said the extra attention given to the rare events is a plot by the media and elected officials at race baiting an interminority conflict. At a 2007 event to discuss this phenomena, Noreen McClendon, an African American, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, and vice president of the Watts Gang Task Force, declared: “We need to go on the offensive to put an end to this idea of ethnic cleansing in L.A. . . . It is not happening.” McClendon said reports of Latino/a on black violence or vice versa are “blown so far out of proportion” as a component of a broader conservative agenda to depoliticize critiques of white supremacy and to distract and disable black civil rights organizations.
Considering these examples raises crucial questions: Why is black-Latino/a conflict considered more newsworthy, and how is such conflict being reported as a new kind of racial conflict with relatively thin evidence of its taking place in U.S. communities? Does it represent an affront to conventional wisdom regarding both groups? Or does it fulfill some other discursive desire to help ease anxieties produced by racial fatigue and encourage blaming victims for their own suffering? This is a claim that Claire Jean Kim has made with regard to black-Korean conflict in New York City. In her “racial triangulation” theory Kim suggests that black-Korean conflicts are in large part produced by means of popular discourse and a gaze of white Americans upon deficient communities of color as two groups pitted against one another in a struggle for scarce resources. Concurrently, whites remain unchallenged in a supreme or apex position above that fray, and the colonial order is fortified.
Book Design and Outline
This book conveys a logic and intervention similar to Kim’s. With acute attention paid to Hall’s suggestions regarding the significance of conjuncture and chronological and geographical specificity in analyses of race, this book’s chapters present specific attention to changes and continuities over time in Baytown, Texas, my hometown, one among many blue-collar towns built in the early twentieth century around the oil-refining industry that dominates the Houston metropolitan area’s southeastern region. Baytown is home to roughly 70,000 citizens and a large number of undocumented denizens, mostly from Mexico and Central America. Baytown’s demography reflects the broader Houston area, at roughly 55 percent white, 30 percent Latino/a, and 17 percent black. As a town built around one of the world’s largest oil refineries, the majority of its residents are either middle or working class.
A killing in Baytown in 2002 created the primary impetus for my arguments regarding how black and Latino/a people often think and act collectively based upon their common experiences in shared spaces. In January 2002 a middle-age Mexican immigrant named Luis Alfonso Torres was beaten and choked to death by four white police officers in Baytown, and his family was then denied justice in courts of law despite compelling evidence of police brutality. In response, black and Latino/a residents of Baytown and from across Houston joined forces in launching what I define as an “activist awakening” in Baytown.
The Torres case of 2002 offers a lens for viewing how ordinary, working-class residents of a local community become grassroots agents for social justice when government institutions prove insufficient to protect their civil and human rights. I use the Torres case and Baytown’s history as a leitmotif or conceptual frame for addressing larger debates about demographic changes, interminority relationships, and the shifting nature of racial politics in the United States at large. Baytown’s activist awakening was an exertion of hybrid subjectivities, a transracial consciousness of power representative of a “decolonial turn,” a condition that Maldonado-Torres has described as comprised of “subaltern memories of suffering and displacement but also happiness and hope in the midst of challenges to human existence.” That activist awakening altered Baytown’s social climate in an unexpected way and from an unexpected source. It originated in a moment that is often declared “postracial” or “post–civil rights” and within which antiracist movements are often criticized as creating racial divisions rather than respected for critiquing them. The activist awakening resulted from an interweaving and amalgamation of shared black and Latino/a memories of oppression and resultant subjectivities that manifested in a moment that is far more commonly described as being rife with black-Latino/a tensions and hostilities.
This activist awakening was the impetus for me to begin to more heavily ponder the influence of black history and black oppositional cultures on that particular expression of hybridity. What stood out as glaringly evident to me was that black leaders helped galvanize the protest movement and were often at the forefront of its most scathing critiques of white supremacy. It was not just from black political actors or black bodies, however, that Latinos/as drew added strength and purpose to their protests. Symbols of anti-black racism and black antiracism were also prominent in the signs and slogans used by Latinos/as to combat racism in that moment. Black political actors clearly manipulated memories of black history to better characterize Latinos/as as victims of racial oppression within the political imaginary of that community.
These types of discursive mutations stirred a series of questions regarding the significance of African American history in this neoliberal age. While it is common to hear suggestions that we should look beyond or expunge the black-white binary when assessing the social meaning of race, we would do so at the risk of discounting the very reasons this binary has been so influential. It is not that the extra attention supposedly afforded to blacks in general and African Americans more specifically has resulted in their being more empowered than other minority groups. Most socioeconomic statistics suggest otherwise, and blacks remain highly susceptible to state-sanctioned violence. I propose that it is more constructive to consider how the condition we understand as the black-white binary contributes to or is being blended into new racial knowledges, subjectivities, and maybe even transracial and transethnic subject positions—produced, as Mignolo explains, in the wake of local histories colliding with global ones under the rubric of globalization. In breaking down the black-white binary as a way of destroying it, perhaps it could be broken down as a deconstructive enterprise designed to reinterpret its origins, meanings, and significance within specific, contemporary, neoliberal frameworks. The goal is then not to diminish the significance of African American history within debates about the social meanings of race in the United States but to remix and reinterpret it.
Baytown’s activist awakening affords an opportunity to do so. Beneath the expression of black-Latino/a solidarity that characterized the event lies a haunting essence of blackness that is in part unique to that community’s historical development and location but that also may reflect the role African American history plays in structuring an understanding of racial politics in the United States generally. The role that blackness or collective memories of black history played in the activist awakening is what influenced me to expand the scope of this book. I highlight Baytown’s activist awakening to map out a more diverse and extensive discursive terrain across which I have witnessed black and Latino/a subjectivities emulsify into a compound subject position that has produced unanticipated acts of resistance by unexpected alliances.
Chapter One lays out the broader geographic and discursive contexts within which I place the later evidence. More specifically, it introduces two terms, “foundational blackness” and the “racial state of expendability,” that are used as the conceptual framework for the empirical evidence I analyze in each subsequent chapter. Chapter Two focuses on the role that state-sanctioned racial violence has played in shaping black and Latino/a subjectivities in Baytown and the general Houston area over time. It traces the relationship between this violence and the Houston area’s development from a slave economy in the mid-nineteenth century into a center for the world’s energy industry by the late twentieth century. The shared experiences of blacks and Latinos/as as targets and victims for this violence is an important reason, I argue, they have been able to engage in collective acts of resistance more recently. For much of the area's history, anti-black violence was more rampant and the foundations for black resistance were stronger, leading to my contention that blackness bears an added moral weight in the Houston area’s social climate.
Chapter Three focuses on the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In it I demonstrate how police terror replaced vigilante terror as the primary mechanism for anti•black and anti-Latino/a injustice in the Houston area. This violence, combined with demographic shifts wrought by neoliberalism, the advent of hip-hop culture, and the proliferation of youth gangs in Baytown, allowed for black and Latino/a subjectivities to overlap and amalgamate with more intensity than ever before. One result is the new hybrid forms of subjectivity that manifested in Baytown’s activist awakening.
In Chapter Four I demonstrate how Baytown’s activist awakening was a clear manifestation of the historical processes previously outlined. I do so by detailing how the Torres case transpired and was politicized. I demonstrate the effects of hybridity and hybrid subjectivities in one space and moment.
In the conclusion I examine the "moral witness" concept as a way of theorizing the significance of Baytown’s activist awakening beyond Baytown, Houston, and the South and within broader debates regarding postcolonialism. I borrow the term “moral witness” from Bhabha to suggest how artists and activists utilize memories of past barbarism to critique contemporary crises in both the private and public domains and refute the logic of postcolonialism in doing so. Moral witnesses, in sum, are the authors, scribes, or performers of decolonial knowledge; this chapter is designed to validate their significance within the realm of racial politics. In the conclusion I also draw critical attention to the role women of color have played in building activist coalitions against police terror in Baytown and communities across the United States. Women's contributions contrast with the male-centered discourse on black-Latino/a conflict and the nature of black-Latino/a solidarity.