Systemic Racism in Mexico

“Mexico is a racist country,” Federico Navarrete proclaims at the beginning of his recently published Spanish-language book, México Racista: Una Denuncia (Racist Mexico: A Denunciation).

Navarrete, a prominent historian at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, known as UNAM, cites some of Mexico’s most cherished ideals as the source of the nation’s racism. Navarrete’s provocative book has generated much discussion in Mexico.

For more than a century, Mexico has prided itself on being a mestizo nation, one where the mixing of Spanish men and indigenous women during the Spanish Conquest produced a blended offspring. This is the story that all Mexican children learn in school.

Navarrete argues that this declaration is not accurate — it is a fable that has been recited for generations.

Navarrete argues that the myth was created as Mexico sought to whiten its population away from its indigenous countenance. There was great pressure on indigenous people to shed their language, culture, dress and lifestyles — to become mestizo. Many, of course, did not do so. Mexicans of African descent were also omitted from the mestizo club as Mexico, like many other Latin American countries, denies its African roots.

Navarrete identifies the numerous venues — family and home, adages, jokes, commercials and the mass media — where racism is propagated on a daily basis. For example, there is a preference for lighter skin within the bosom of the family, and indigenous and dark-skinned people are often the butt of jokes. He argues that when people are accused of being racist, they tend to deny or minimize their racism. People frequently downplay their racist statements or thoughts because they occur in private or are done in jest — no one is hurt.

Particularly noteworthy, according to Navarrete, is that Mexicans claim they cannot be racist because everyone in the country belongs to the same mestizo race. People criticized for their racism also tend to draw attention away from themselves by accusing others of being racist because they are the ones calling attention to race.

Navarrete argues forcefully that racism in Mexico is not merely idle talk. Rather, it is pernicious and noxious. The result of racist talk, actions and behavior among Mexicans is the social exclusion and devaluation of indigenous people and persons of African origin who are seen as not really part of Mexican society — they are the “other,” people who do not count.

Navarrete advances the concept of “necropolitics of inequality,” reflecting great disparity in the probability of death with impunity:

The ease and impunity in which so many Mexicans are murdered, disappeared, tortured and kidnapped signify that the right to life and other fundamental human rights are not distributed in an equal manner among Mexican citizens.

Put simply, the lives of some people are more valuable than those of others. Navarrete lists sectors of Mexican society that are most vulnerable to such death and violence:

marginalized youth, women, persons with nontraditional sexual identities, journalists, peasants whose territories contain valuable natural resources.

A recent study of the 35 countries forming the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, found that Mexico had the second highest level of inequality in 2014. Racism and inequality intersect to marginalize the lives of many Mexicans.

Navarrete asserts that some of the most heinous murders over the last couple of decades in Mexico show the minimization of the lives of Mexicans who live on the margins of society. He draws attention to the impunity and the Mexican government’s lack of concern for the disappearance and murder of the 43 student teachers in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in September 2014; the killings of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s and 2000s; the mass murder of 200 Central and South American migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010 and 2011; and the mass murder of 22 individuals assumed to be narcotraffickers at the hands of Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya on June 30, 2014. Navarrete asserts that the indigenous roots, the darker skin and the low socioeconomic standing of these victims made their lives invisible and expendable. He avers that there would be an uproar in the government and mass media, and among the elite if the victims were “beautiful” people from privileged classes.

In the case of the 22 people killed by soldiers in Tlatlaya, Navarrete points out that the Spanish newspaper El País aptly described how much the Mexican government valued the lives of the victims in its headline “Only 12 Words for Each Dead Person,” referring to the government’s terse 273-word announcement of the incident.

This book is a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship calling attention to racism in Mexico. The book aims to provoke dialogue in the country to make the invisible visible, and to ultimately better the social, economic and political position of the marginalized.

We can also draw on Navarrete’s book to understand the similarities of racism in Mexico and the United States. They are numerous. In both countries we see the link between the value of one’s life, and the color of one’s skin and one’s socioeconomic standing. In Mexico, people of indigenous and African origins are the poorest, least educated, most marginalized and most invisible in the country; in the U.S., Native Americans, African-Americans and Latinos hold this unfortunate distinction. Over the last several years in the U.S., there has been a surge in the killing with impunity of unarmed African-Americans by police officers. Activists have needed to remind us that “Black lives matter.”

In addition, the racial inequalities found in both countries are long-standing, going back for centuries. In both countries the mainstream vehemently denies the existence of racism. Mexico denies it along the lines of its own brand of colorblindness — “We are all mestizos,” therefore we cannot be racists. The U.S. disavows the existence of racism through its own form of colorblindness — “We do not see color differences in people” — and proclamation of reaching postracial status, where race is no longer important in the lives of people; after all, “we have elected a black president.”

In the end, it is this denial of the role that race plays in long-standing racial inequality that helps perpetuate racial inequality. Society is inculcated with the fables of race and racism that Mexico and the United States exalt. The “normal” and “what we all see” set the stage for people to wear blinders concerning racial matters and racism — namely, that race has nothing to do with one’s societal position. Naysayers who insist that racism exists are discounted as the real racists, with the dialogue coming to a halt. It is important to recognize that racism is not just about individuals but a system — in our institutions, laws, customs and attitudes — that perpetuates racial inequality.

In the U.S. legal system, even with statistical evidence, racial disparities — associated, say, with voting rights, redistricting and the death penalty — are substantiated only when there is a visible smoking gun bearing actual intent to commit racial discrimination. Such conditions regenerate racial inequality.
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Rogelio Sáenz is Dean of the College of Public Policy and the Mark G. Yudof Endowed Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the co-author of the book Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change.
This essay was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News (November 19, 2016).

Colorblindness is a Real Problem

**This post is dedicated to all the strong people of the world who persevere every day for justice in the face of mass ignorance, resistance and a fusillade of criticism that the world we imagine is simply a “utopia” that we will never reach. You are critical in the face of widespread passivity. You are brave in the face of conditioned acquiescence. I salute you.**

Sitting in a room filled with university students, who passively accept a status quo that is shoved down their throats, is deeply distressing. I am that person in the class who never stops questioning the mainstream paradigm and traditional liberal way of thinking- who won’t just accept the way things are; this simultaneously drains me and exhilarates me. I call it a state of being “hopelessly inspired.” The pain of being surrounded by pacified individuals is not to be undervalued, especially when you yourself cannot stop questioning why things are the way that they are and why we, as a global society, aren’t doing enough about it.

The truth is, my mind never stops working. I am constantly criticizing and questioning the state of our global affairs. I will not passively accept injustice. I will not stop asking questions that matter. I will not stop trying to conjure up new ways for us to solve our world problems. But, (and this is a massive but) I live in a global society where most people do not care to burden themselves with such worries. It is truly disheartening and depressing to be around people who ask you things like: “Why do you care so much? Don’t take everything so personally!” One of the most difficult tasks in the world is to keep your breath in a world that is actively suffocating you.

So here’s my story about how I got mad in one of my classrooms because of categorically false statements about inequality, institutional racism, white privilege, and discrimination. I have written up a transcript of the discussion and picked out key parts that also represent a wider culture of ignorance and colorblindness. All these statements came directly from students in my class; my responses are verbatim. I want to point out that the blame does not lie with my fellow students, as they are only drops in the ocean; rather, I have used them as a means to express a worldwide problem.

*In a political philosophy seminar about equality*

Person 1: Equality and racism are not related. We don’t need to discuss race if we are discussing equality.

Me: That is very easy for you to say as white, privileged male.

P1: That is very unfair.

Me: Is it fair that you’ve never had to walk down the street and worry about being stopped and frisked on the basis of your skin color. Or fear being denied a job on the basis that your ethnicity. Or deal with a judge who is two times more likely to charge you because you’re black. Yet you sit here and claim that equality and racism have nothing to do with each other?

P1: What’s that got to do with equality?

Me: Everything.

Person 2: Well I know what racism is. In South Africa there used to be racism against black people and today it is the other way around. Do you know that they have a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) law that discriminates against white people? I am from South Africa, I know.

Me: Comparing one concentrated incident you had in South Africa is not the same as hundreds of years of oppression that people of color have faced and continue to face. The fact that you receive racist treatment when you are in South Africa because you are white is not the same as facing daily discrimination from a racist system. Racist treatment and systems are two very different things and have completely different outcomes.

P2: It is not fair that you are saying that I do not understand what racism is.

Me: You can never understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of daily discrimination when you have white privilege and do not suffer the same as people of color.

P2: You know, if the IRA came back to Ireland tomorrow and the police wanted to stop and frisk Irish people on the street to prevent terrorism, I wouldn’t stop them. Even if they were white, I would support it. I’m not racist.

Me: You’re not dealing with the issue at hand, which is institutional racism in this country. I don’t want to talk about hypothetical examples of the IRA. How about we talk about the here and now, what’s actually going on. The daily prejudice that people of color face.  You really think that you can understand that because someone was once racist to you in South Africa and now all your white privilege is wiped out? You don’t understand that a racist system operates on a very different level to actual individuals carrying out their prejudices in their society. Systems have mass outreach and affect more lives and that is the institutional racism here and in the U.S.

*Discussion moves on to positive discrimination*

P1: I don’t think it’s fair that women and people of color are given jobs on the basis of their sex or skin color. We should only give work to those people who have earned their position, have worked hard for it and not just got in because of a quota.

Me: You do understand that those systems are in place precisely because people of color and women have been marginalized for so long that without such affirmative actions, the work force continues to be dominated by white, middle-class, males.

P2: People should work for their positions, not be handed them. I just think that if you work hard enough, you can get where you want. We don’t need quotas for people who don’t deserve them.

Me: Again, that is very easy for you to say as a white privileged male. You don’t have to suffer employer discrimination or worry about being denied a job because you are a single mother with children. Clearly you have no understanding of what people of color and women face and you’re not even willing to listen to how institutional racism affects equality of opportunity.

This entire conversation was a reminder to me about how unaffected and invested in their own privilege people truly are, and if this is coming from students of political science, what hope is there really for our global social development? If you have no qualms with our system representation, it is likely because you are already being represented. But there are many sectors of society who are massively marginalized and under-represented and this warrants recognition.

just because

Mass colorblindness is a real problem. It’s that ridiculous Morgan Freeman has argued that ignoring racism will lead for it to go away. Racism doesn’t go away if you ignore it. You are doing more wrong by omitting race out of the conversation of social politics than good. You are ignoring the suffering of millions and causing more pain through colorblindness. The only way to work towards a more equal society (even though I believe that equality itself is an illusion) is through acknowledging our collective wrongdoings and shortcomings. I do not want to exclude those with privilege, I just want them to accept their racial privilege whether it makes them feel uncomfortable or not. You cannot be an ally while you are still colorblind.

People who believe that we all start off on an equal footing and everything that happens to us post-birth is a direct result of our own actions are the problem. People who deny that socio-economic inequalities are a product of our hyper-capitalist society are the problem. We don’t suffer from mass inequalities because people are lazy. Neither do we suffer from them due to individual luck. There is a system in place that not only causes these inequalities, but also perpetuates and exasperates them. Just read oligarchy theory and how a small number of elites agree to a transition to democracy just to maintain their wealth and privilege. Capitalism will always require a docile, underpaid working class that is crushed by the force of our wants (not needs). Racism is not a natural state and we need not accept its existence in our society. I will not pretend that institutional racism does not exist in order to appease and cater to whiteness’ ideals of humanism. My humanism involves addressing everyone’s struggle and not just the ones that relate to me personally. We need more allies, not people who deny the reality of our societies.

You are in an intimate relationship with the rest of humanity and it is your duty to be bothered, to be frustrated, and to get mad. And if you don’t feel anything, you are the problem. Just because you are unaffected by injustice does not mean you should remain mentally, emotionally, and physically unaffected. Privilege is thinking that something is not a problem because it does not affect you personally.

There is nothing wrong with being perpetually sad at the state of the world, as I wrote here. There is too much stigma around sadness. Depressive realism is not a disease; it is an impetus to act. Be sad at all the injustice. Be angry that we are a part of it. Bathe in your anger. Live it. But, do not let it consume you. Channel it into improving the situation. Apply your anger for the betterment of humanity. And be unsatisfied with the state of mass inequalities, institutional racism, greedy capitalist ideals, patriarchy, and white privilege.

I’d rather have dangerous freedom than peaceful slavery any day.

 ~ This post was written by Mohadesa Najumi who is the special College columnist for The Feminist Wire, where this post originally appeared. Mohadesa blogs regularly here.

Rand Paul Exposes Dangers of Colorblind Thinking

Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul has drawn a great deal of recent attention for his comments that had he been in the Senate in 1964, he would have argued against key portions of the Civil Rights legislation under discussion. In his own words:

“I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race.

But I think what’s important in this debate is not getting into any specific ‘gotcha’ on this, but asking the question ‘What about freedom of speech?’ Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? I don’t want to be associated with those people, but I also don’t want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that’s one of the things that freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn’t mean we approve of it.

Well what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says ‘Well no, we don’t want to have guns in here’ the bar says ‘We don’t want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other.’ Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion…”

As his statements, made first to a local newspaper, repeated on NPR, and quoted here from an interview on MSNBC, make clear, Paul’s argument is not that he is opposed to the entire Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor does he contend that he, as an individual, personally would engage in discriminatory actions or behaviors. In fact, in his interviews (and follow up ones designed to minimize the political fallout from his statements) he has explicitly stated that he does not consider himself a racist and abhors racist behaviors (although there’s some evidence suggesting otherwise). He does, however, believe that the federal government overreaches when it attempts to place any curtails on private businesses, and has articulated this belief on several occasions and in various contexts. Thus, in keeping with libertarianism, he is ideologically opposed to any federal government legislation that purports to interfere with private enterprise, even if that private enterprise engages in racial, gender, or any type of discrimination that would be illegal in the public sector.

Rand Paul’s statements illustrate more clearly than any academic exercise ever could the dangers associated with what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as colorblind ideology. In recent work, Bonillla-Silva argues that racialized social systems are comprised of economic, social, political, legal, and ideological structures that maintain racial hierarchies (and inequalities). He argues that in modern society, the mechanisms that maintain racial hierarchies are much less visible and overt than in previous generations. Thus, segregation is no longer codified and legally protected, but it still exists in educational and residential settings due to more covert processes like white flight and gentrification. Correspondingly, the dominant racial ideology in many public settings is a colorblind one, where whites (and some people of color) purport not to notice, observe, or think about race or racial issues. Conveniently, this reluctance to acknowledge race means there is no need to address whites’ racial privilege and/or the ensuing racial inequality that results. As Bonilla-Silva argues, those who use the colorblind ideology are able to employ a discourse where they take no notice of the processes that maintain various forms of racial inequality, and can thus comfortably state their opposition to any efforts to rectify them.

When Rand Paul takes libertarian ideology to its logical conclusions, he reveals the ways in which colorblindness works to maintain a racially unjust status quo. If the central tenet of libertarianism is no federal government oversight of the private market, then the logical conclusion of that idea is that the federal government should not involve itself in legislating constraints on private businesses, even if this leads to practices like racial discrimination.  The consequence of this ideological argument, however, is that it maintains a larger system where racial discrimination goes on unchecked.

If private enterprises are legally permitted to discriminate, history shows us quite clearly that they will. In fact, a cursory review of social science literature and recent news stories reveals that even with discrimination illegal in the present day, some private businesses still manage to practice it.  It was only a short while ago that black children were sent home from a private pool in Pennsylvania because they were “changing the complexion.”

So, when Rand Paul endorses a libertarian ideology that champions minimal or nonexistent federal oversight of the free market, he either ignores or doesn’t care about the fact that in the U.S., that “free market” he longs to protect has never been all that “free” for people of color. As Joe Feagin argues with his expansion of the legal concept of “unjust enrichment,” many white-owned businesses engaged in protected “free market” practices have built their wealth off of the appropriated, often forced labor of people of color. Strongly enforced anti-discrimination laws would have been beneficial to black Americans excluded from jobs, Chinese immigrant workers who were routinely paid less than their white counterparts, Japanese American citizens snatched from their homes and livelihoods and interned in concentration camps, Native Americans whose residential and economic isolation helps to make them disproportionately represented among the nation’s poorest, as well as a host of other groups.

But a colorblind libertarian perspective ignores the embedded racialized inequities of the private market and pretends that it is simply neutral, objective, and beneficial to all. Case in point: the libertarian counterargument—that those denied services in discriminatory private markets are free to take their business elsewhere or establish their own—also ignores the deep structural racial inequities that shape U.S. society. In other words, black patrons who are, en masse, discriminated against at white-owned businesses do not live in a society where they have equal access to banks, capital, and other resources that allow them to build competing structures. This has never been the case. By design, the United States has never been a place where black businesses have flourished by relying on both the forced labor of whites and black-dominated federal, state, and local governments that legitimize such racially unbalanced labor practices. Instead, when discrimination is legal in the U.S., blacks simply become an economically disadvantaged, socially subordinate, politically marginalized minority group in society. This isn’t academic speculation; it is a recounting of the facts of U.S. history during the era where public and private discrimination was legal.  These facts still have an impact racial disparities in health, education, income, and wealth to this day.

Finally, when Rand Paul says that “these are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion,” he shows how colorblind ideology ignores the real ramifications racism has for various groups, particularly those who are targeted by racist practices. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he meant that the conversation he was having with Rachel Maddow was “not very practical” because, as he went on to say the next day, the Civil Rights Act is settled law and (hopefully) not likely to be repealed.

However, even if Paul was simply engaging in theoretical exercise and discussing the logical ends of libertarian philosophy, he still reveals a profound ignorance of the realities and impact of racial discrimination on real human beings and his fellow citizens.  There are plenty of people still alive today who have first-hand experience of  legally enforced segregation and discrimination.   For those citizens who lived through segregation and struggled against it to see the triumph of the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, to now hear a candidate for U.S. Senate blithely suggest that on ideological grounds, he opposes the legislation that protects their legal right to be served in restaurants, hotels, gas stations, educational facilities, and any other privately owned entity must feel as though they’ve stepped back in time.

At best, Rand’s theoretical opposition is callously insensitive to the lived experiences and collective memory of his fellow Americans. It also underscores the perils of pretending that colorblindness in a racially stratified society is an ideologically equitable position.

“Million Dollar Blocks” : Incarceration as the New Jim Crow

There is some fascinating research being done these days with mapping and the visual representation of data, some of it illustrates the reality of incarceration as the new form of Jim Crow segregation.

Currently, the U.S. has more than 2 million people incarcerated in jails and prisons. A disproportionate of these come from a handful of neighborhoods, and in many places the concentration of incarceration rates is so dense that some states are spending in excess of a million dollars a year to lock up the residents of single city blocks.  A lack of opportunity in the legitimate economic structure, combined with more opportunities in the unofficial economy, and the aggressive police state practices that Joe mentioned yesterday, fairly guarantees high reincarceration rates.   In fact, roughly forty percent of those who are released and reenter their communities do not stay more than three years before they are reincarcerated.   These “million dollar blocks” are almost exclusively also blocks where African American and Latino people live. 

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(Image of Brooklyn, NY from Spatial Information Design Lab, Columbia University.)

Blogger Julie Netherland notes the staggering public health costs of such policies, then poses the relevant question here: “how could we improve the health of these neighborhoods if we invested a million dollars into community development, jobs, or education … instead of incarceration?  How many public health problems could be solved?”  Indeed, I suspect the health of these “million dollar blocks” would look a lot different if we could shift the focus from incarceration to community development.

This systemic pattern of incarcerating black and brown young men from a few city blocks is a continuation of decades of social, political and cultural exclusion based on race.  Legal scholar and litigator Michelle Alexander has a new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in which she argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Her work shows that by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness.

So, while it is important to celebrate the victories over Jim Crow won at lunch counters, it is imperative that we look for ways to dismantle the current, pernicious system of Jim Crow segregation.