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Latinos need to confront their own racism, say Afro-Latinos pushing for racial equity

Afro-Latino activists, from supermodel Joan Smalls to political organizers and scholars, say the push for Black Lives Matter and racial justice needs to be constant and persistent.
Image: An activist holds a sign that reads \"Las vigas Negras importan\" at a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020.
An activist holds a sign that reads "Las vidas Negras importan" ("Black lives matter") at a Black Lives Matter protest in June.Nirma Hasty / NBC News

After attending a Black Lives Matter march in Paris last summer protesting George Floyd's death, the Afro-Latina supermodel Joan Smalls thought back on her own experiences with racism.

When Smalls was growing up in an interracial family in Puerto Rico, her mother was called derogatory terms and her father was treated unfairly at work because of the color of his skin. Smalls has been upfront about confronting the "beast of racism" within the fashion industry.

"We want to have this perceived notion that we're all equal, but in reality, we're not treated that way," Smalls said. "It's great that the movement caught such a momentum in 2020, but obviously it's a conversation that needs to continue so that it's normalized, so it's not just a phase. In order to have real change, there has to be continuity."

The Floyd protests last summer mobilized Latinos to confront racism and anti-blackness within their own communities. The challenge, as Smalls and others said, is how to keep the focus on racial equity — and how to keep it constant.

Image: Joan Smalls in 2018
Joan Smalls walks the runway at the Max Mara show at Milan Fashion Week on Sept. 20, 2018.Jacopo Raule / Getty Images file

Leading up to the election after the summer's protests, some conservatives and Republican candidates and lawmakers repeatedly misrepresented the movement as an extremist, violent faction tied to anarchists. Some of the messaging was aimed at Latino voters. False narratives about the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol blamed Black Lives Matter protesters or equated the deadly siege with marches for racial justice.

Part of Latinos' racial reckoning is shedding the idea that "blackness is something else that is U.S.-based" and "doesn't directly affect our Afro-Latino brothers and sisters," said Fordham University law professor Tanya Hernandez, author of the coming book "On Latino Anti-Black Bias: 'Racial Innocence' & The Struggle for Equality."

Latinos "need to stop acting as if our ethnicity shields us from any implications in regard to racial issues," Hernandez said. "An ethnic group is not impervious to issues of racism simply because they, too, are victims of racialization."

Racism — within racial diversity

Latinos attended the "Unite The Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 to defend white nationalism. They included Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the far-right white nationalist extremist group the Proud Boys, who identifies as Afro-Cuban. The Proud Boys were found to have been involved in the Capitol riot.

"White supremacy has a way of changing through the years and finds new ways of oppressing," said Angel Velez, an Afro-Puerto Rican pursuing a Ph.D. in education policy at the University of Illinois. "We need to fight those urges and think about what role can we play as Latinos at the community level to advance racial justice."

A misconception among Latinos and others is that Black Lives Matter is "about trying to put Black people first, as supposed to looking at Black Lives Matter as a human rights platform," Hernandez said.

Ramon Contreras, 22, is an Afro-Latino political strategist and activist who grew up in New York City.

"I've been stopped by police officers growing up here, and I've been affected by a racist police system," said Contreras, who is of Dominican descent. "In order for us to actually come together and make sure that we actually have a system that's there to protect us and not target us, we need to march for Black lives when somebody like George Floyd is killed."

Contreras started organizing protests and marching every day last summer, "making sure that we were demanding justice."

A quarter of all U.S. Latinos identified as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or as being of African descent with roots in Latin America, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey.

Yet many Afro-Latinos still struggle with identifying as Black. In Pew's survey, only 18 percent of Afro-Latinos said they were Black, compared to 39 percent who identified as white. Almost a quarter (24 percent) said their race was "Hispanic" — which is an ethnicity, not a race.

Regardless of how Latinos see themselves, assumptions are made, especially toward those who are deemed to be Latino because of the way they look or the language they speak.

"Every community is not monolithic," Velez said. "But we have to understand that the way this country talks about Latinos is also very xenophobic."

Latinos face overt and subtle racism and discrimination, whether they were born in the U.S. or not. Hate crimes against them are on the rise, and many Latinos are harassed and even arrested for speaking Spanish in public. While Black people are overwhelmingly most likely to die at the hands of police, Latinos are killed by police at nearly twice the rate of white people, according to a database compiled by The Washington Post. Many Latinos face roadblocks to gain access to health care and economic and educational opportunities.

Taking action

Smalls has used her global voice to raise awareness of race and other issues, but during the racial reckoning, she asked herself, "When do you put your money where your mouth is?"

Smalls donated $100,000 to 11 organizations promoting racial equity after having pledged to donate half of her salary for the rest of 2020. She created the portal to encourage others to do the same. Some of the fashion and beauty brands she has worked with have matched her donation, Smalls said.

Among the organizations is Color Of Change, the nation's largest online racial justice organization. The group recently partnered with Smalls, the Black in Fashion Council and the global company IMG to launch #ChangeFashion, which urges companies to support specific actions to tackle racial inequity.

"Actions speak louder than words," Smalls said. "Sometimes you never know if by helping one of these organizations you helped put a kid through school or take someone out of the justice system that was wrongfully convicted — what these organizations need are funds in order to survive and continue their good work."

Contreras' involvement in organizing marches and protests last summer sparked conversations with his Dominican relatives, both Black and white, about how "the same issues that affect Black Americans in this country are the same issues that affect us, especially when we look at law enforcement — from ICE to the NYPD and LAPD."

"If we don't crack down on the discrimination and injustices that these systems promote and the way they are enforced in our communities, nothing will change," he said.

For Contreras, who works with local officials on policymaking, continuing to fight for Black lives means turning the conversations and protests of last year into political action, staying civically engaged and keeping the pressure on elected officials.

"We wanted to see something different last year, and we wanted to make sure that those police officers were held accountable," he said. "We need to make sure that when President Biden talks about race that he doesn't forget about what happened to George Floyd and he doesn't forget about the demands that Black Lives Matter made and how we still are waiting for justice to be served."

The push for a racial reckoning and racial equity, say Afro-Latinos like Contreras and Smalls, has to be seen in a broader context — and it needs to be persistent.

"Wherever you look, there is inequality — there are people who don't seem to get it, because they're not placed in that position or they haven't had those experiences," Smalls said. "Just because something doesn't happen to you doesn't mean it does not exist."

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