Stereotypes Drive Fox and Black Leader's Tiff

The Reverend Al Sharpton was not satisfied with Mexican President Vicente Fox's ambiguous apology for his quip that Mexicans will work jobs that even blacks won't. Sharpton went to Mexico to prod Fox to engage in a real dialogue about race. Sharpton can badger Fox to fully recant his impolitic remarks all he wants. But many Mexicans and blacks agreed with his words. They believe that Mexican immigrants will work the hardest, dirtiest, lowest paying jobs that blacks won't work. They also privately say that blacks won't work them because they are lazy and slothful.

That belief is crude, false, and racist. But it also reflects a much bigger problem. Relations between blacks and Latinos are rife with myths and misconceptions. It's part cultural and part economic. Mexican TV viewers are fed a daily diet of American sit coms and gangster shoot-em-ups in which blacks are portrayed as clowns, buffoons and crooks. The programs are beamed to Mexico and other countries on cable and satellite networks. Many Mexicans refer to dark skinned persons, both Mexican, and non-Mexican, as negritos or little black people. This is not seen as racist, or offensive. It is regarded as a term of affection even endearment.

During an extended stay in Mexico, a few years ago, I lived with a well-to-do Mexican family. Family members routinely asked if my son was into gangs and drugs (He was a university senior at the time). I did not regard this as insensitive or even racist. I chalked it up to the one-dimensional depiction of blacks in the global media world.

The indigenous black population in Mexico is tiny and confined to several enclaves. Most Mexicans have little opportunity to interact with prominent blacks in business, the professions and politics. That cultural isolation helps reinforce negative stereotypes. But so does economics.

In decades past, Mexican immigrants were brutally exploited as cheap labor in mines, factories and the fields in the Southwest. During the 1950s when they became labor expendables, the INS launched "Operation Wetback" sweeps, and deportations. Many Mexican immigrants overcame the vicious racial exclusion and economic exploitation and have managed to build thriving businesses and climb up the professional ladder. That seems proof positive to them that anyone who is willing to work hard and marshal his or her resources can succeed in America.

If many blacks, despite being in America for centuries still remain trapped in a hopeless morass of poverty, crime, violence, drugs and family deterioration then blacks can't blame their plight on illegal immigration, racism, or government and corporate neglect but themselves. This victim bashing fails to understand the lingering damaging affects of two centuries of chattel slavery and a century of Jim Crow segregation.

Ethnic insensitivity, however, is a two way street. Blacks have little understanding of the political repression and economic destitution that drove many Mexican immigrants to seek refuge in the United States. Many have fled from the civil strife, massive land dislocation, the chronic lack of industry, and an exploding population that has racked Mexico. There is no government safety net in the country for Mexico's unemployed and landless. Mexican immigrants face the daunting problem of readjusting to a strange culture, customs, and language in the U.S. They also live in constant fear of being discovered by the INS, police and other government authorities and sent home. Fox made his intemperate quip not to demean blacks but to slam Bush and Congress for their get tough crack down on illegal immigration. Bush had just signed a law to make it harder for illegal immigrants to get drivers licenses and to build a wall along the Mexican-U.S. border.

Many blacks engage in ethnic one-upmanship that minimizes the suffering and plight of poor Mexican immigrants. They play the slavery and civil rights card. They note that Latinos (and other non-whites) did not experience chattel slavery and its legacy. Their family and ethnic cohesion was not ruptured. They were not color-stamped with the badge of inferiority. To them, this is tantamount to a racial pass that makes it much easier for immigrants to secure business loans, credit, access to education and the professions than blacks.

Many blacks take sole credit for the civil rights victories of the 1960s. Those victories broke the back of legal segregation, and shattered the barriers in corporations and professions to minority advancement. The implication is that blacks made it easier for immigrants to succeed, and that their success has come at the expense of black struggle and sacrifice. That ignores the fierce civil rights and farm worker battles that Mexican immigrants waged for decades. Fox's quip rudely rammed the racial myths that fuel tensions between blacks and Mexicans to the surface. The racial dialogue that Sharpton wants between blacks and Mexicans is much needed and long overdue. Such a dialogue could be a start toward alleviating some of those tensions.

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