When I first moved to Baltimore, I worked briefly as a human resources recruiter for a pair of entrepreneurial Russian immigrants who provided labor for different service industries in the city. On my third day of work, one of the owners of the company and his Latina hiring manager told me not to hire black Americans, because—I was told—they’re lazy and don’t want to do hard work. In fact, I was instructed to give them a separate application packet that was considerably less detailed—a move I assume was meant to discourage black applicants. I was stunned, to say the least.
Having worked in human resources for several years, I had been witness to unconscious bias in hiring managers, and even subtle racism, but until now I had never heard such overt racism, nor had I been instructed to practice discrimination in hiring. As a follower of Jesus and an HR professional, I refused to do it. I fumed all the way home that they would even ask such a thing of me, but I was also saddened and disheartened by how much my fellow immigrants can devalue black lives. In particular, I have seen that firsthand in Latinx communities.
In the wake of the many deaths of our black neighbors at the hands of the authorities, I have prayed for justice for them, but I don’t think that’s enough. As Pope Francis says, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
I recognize that our black neighbors are in pain, and I want to call out and encourage those in my community who have yet to support the Black Lives Matter movement. We should all suffer and grieve with our black neighbors, and we should advocate for them as well. Here are some ways Latinx communities can support black lives:
1. We need to listen to the suffering of our black neighbors and refrain from centering the conversation on ourselves.
I work in a nonprofit immigration legal clinic that’s part of a larger organization that resettles refugees here in the US, and I’m an immigrant myself. I’m closely acquainted with the suffering of immigrants, whether they are documented or not. Few people would say that displacement is desirable and easy or that our current immigration system is just.
I also live in a city with its own share of injustice against our black neighbors, culminating in the Uprising two years ago and the trials of the police officers responsible for the death of Freddie Gray last year. And yet it seems that whenever I engage other Latinxs in a conversation about Black Lives Matter and particularly the injustices against black bodies, they immediately respond with a litany of injustices against Latinxs.
I am not at all negating the suffering of our community—it’s real, and it’s true. However, our black neighbors need us to listen and grieve with them. There is a prophetic call to affirm that black lives matter to God and to us because their lives are being taken by those in authority who are supposed to protect them. Caring about our black neighbors means sitting with them and listening to their stories, and it does not mean that our own struggles for justice don’t matter.
2. We need to speak out against anti-blackness in Latinx communities.
In Spanish, there’ a popular saying, “mejorar la raza” or improve the race. Loosely translated, it’s an encouragement to marry and have children with someone whiter than you are because of the belief that European genetic traits are superior and, thus, more desirable. Even though “mejorar la raza” is a lived reality of internalized racism for many Latinxs, this phrase is often repeated tongue-in-cheek, as if it’s harmless and amusing. It is neither. It is the legacy of colonialism that has brainwashed us into thinking that European features are the only ones that are beautiful.
I’ve also heard Latinxs place more value on those in their communities with lighter skin tones and/or curse the sun in the summer for making their skin darker as if that’s the worst thing that could happen to them. It’s important for Latinx communities to call out words like these for exactly what they are: anti-black and prejudiced. These words are not harmless; they are insidious because they denigrate the image of God in our black neighbors; they deny the truth that our black neighbors have lives of worth, deserving of dignity.
3. We need to remember that when disenfranchised groups blame and condemn each other the only real winner is white supremacy.
Very often disenfranchised groups behave as if there is a limited amount of justice in the world, and they must get theirs before it is all gone. The truth is that the best way forward is for all of us to unite to dismantle the white supremacist systems that oppress us. Dr. King said famously: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Conversely, justice anywhere is also good for all of us, whether it’s for our particular community or not. In fact, Dr. King goes on to say, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Consider that the the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 coincided with the civil rights movement. This federal law ended the National Origins Formula, a racist quota system meant to prevent immigration from changing the ethnic distribution of the population. The attention to the oppression of black Americans also highlighted the mistreatment of non-white immigrants, leading to changes in the law that were more just. Prior to this time, all immigration laws had been based on fear and the exclusion of particular ethnic or racial groups, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Were it not for the struggle and sacrifices of black Americans and their supporters in the civil rights movement, most immigrants of color would probably have few options under the law to remain in this country. Justice had a positive ripple effect that benefited all of us by creating more equitable and compassionate laws. No matter whom it’s for, justice is good for our society.
4. We need to repent of our own racism, prejudice, and discrimination towards our black neighbors.
I have experienced covert racism and microaggressions in my life as an immigrant; rarely has it been overt. It seems that many people understand that racism and prejudice are not things you want to flaunt in front of others because they reflect negatively on you. But overt racism, prejudice, and discrimination against black Americans is common and even acceptable in many Latinx communities.
When Dr. King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, I believe that anywhere includes our own hearts not just laws, policies, and “the man” out there. Broken systems are made up of people, after all, each of whom is in need of repentance and transformation. It’s important for Latinxs to repent of racism, prejudice, and acts of discrimination and stop excusing these evils.
5. We need to build relationships with our black neighbors.
Fear and hatred thrive when all we know of our neighbors are harmful stereotypes or the misrepresentations we see in the media. It’s important to build relationships because they help us to really “see” one another and identify with each other’s suffering. While it is easy to generalize about those who are nameless and faceless, it is far more difficult to do so when we know each other’s stories, histories, and names.
As I have supported the Black Lives Matter movement, I continue to learn about the history of oppression and racial injustice in Baltimore and around the country, and I still hear from the immigrants I work with about their fear and suspicion of black Americans.
But I remain hopeful, because of something else Dr. King said:
“The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history.”
There is hope for the restoration of relationship between our communities, but it will not happen by just wishing it so–we have to be committed to that work.