I first learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., as a ten-year-old immigrant from Mexico City to southeastern Virginia. His life was awe-inducing, undeniably inspiring, even to an elementary school student. I quickly noticed the significant status he occupied in the minds of many of my classmates, how much his dedication to civil rights mattered in the context of our region’s not-too-distant past. Our public school had, after all, been segregated prior to Brown v. Board of Education, and in the year of my arrival, 2005, was still mostly White.
Nevertheless, his story remained novel to me, part of a history I was still in the process of adopting. As I grew up and became increasingly assimilated into American culture, it became clear that King posthumously achieved a ubiquitous level of admiration that’s rare in our fractured Republic. But even after several years of living in the United States and an acquired personal appreciation for him, I wasn’t sure where King’s legacy overlapped with the experiences of Latinos as Latinos—as a group in 21st-century America.
By now many assume on the part of racial minorities a shared attitude toward race and discrimination. This tendency might be especially pronounced when it comes to African Americans and Hispanics, as seen by how reflexively we use the term “Black and Latino” in discussing particular social issues, especially related to poverty. Although it’s correct to admit empirical sociological overlap on important matters, without care we easily slip into mistakenly acting as though the experiences of Blacks and Latinos in America are self-evidently intertwined.
The fundamental problem with this view is that, even at the level of generalities, most Hispanics and African Americans don’t have the same experiences with discrimination. Latinos in the United States have certainly faced racial discrimination, but not of the scale or intensity faced by African Americans in the Jim Crow South, to say nothing of the pre-Civil War era. The Latino population in America increased dramatically after the civil rights movement, meaning most Latinos today began to call America home with the movement’s legal victories against discrimination already in place. Drawing too close a parallel between the historical—and, more importantly, deeply personal—experiences with racism faced by Blacks with those faced by Hispanics risks coming across as disingenuously anachronistic.
One often-tried attempt to link Latinos with King’s efforts emphasizes a shared history of activism. To be sure, there are overlaps. Latinos participated in the 1963 March on Washington, for example. Moreover, Latino activists like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta drew inspiration from King, especially from his advocacy for economic equality. King even wrote a telegram to Chavez in 1966 stating that, “Our separate struggles are really one—a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”
But perhaps there is an even more fundamental connection to be made between King’s efforts to advance civil rights and the experiences of Latinos today, a more personal way in which King can teach us about the process of making sense of ourselves in contemporary America.
In 1956, King delivered a speech titled “Desegregation and the Future” to a group of educators in New York. Relying on similar arguments used by Dr. Kenneth Clark and Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education, King argued that equality is not merely “a matter of mathematics or geometry, but a matter of psychology … not only a quantitative something, but qualitative something.” The separate but equal jurisprudence under Plessy v. Ferguson and the laws it upheld were inherently unequal no matter how identical public facilities might be (though of course they seldom were). Why? Because at its core, segregation reinforced the idea that there is some difference between Blacks and Whites, due to race, that merits different treatment.
Egregious acts of legalized injustice, not to mention rationalizations for violence, followed this idea. But more fundamentally, King identified that “separate but equal” pronounced a reductive view of people, one that ultimately, in his words, “depersonalizing the segregated.” It propped up a particular conception of race and superimposed it on Black individuals, perpetuating the qualitative injustice that King denounced.
In today’s discourse, with questions of identity and race taking up much of our energy, Latinos also find themselves reduced. Although Latinos are expected to have a robust affinity to our identity as a minority group, when it comes to race Latinos display an unconventional array of views. A 2015 Pew survey shows that while 94 percent of Americans selected one of the five census-designated racial categories, only 63 percent of Latinos selected one. Many Latinos instead identified their race as “Latino” or “Hispanic”—technically ethnic, not racial, terms—or even selected their country of origin as their race. The nomenclature we use to understand race, our vocabulary to make sense of it, just doesn’t encapsulate Latinos very well.
Latin American artists, from poets to songwriters, have spoken to this composite attitude toward race. In the United States, perhaps no Hispanic has more eloquently expressed these observations than the essayist Richard Rodriguez. In his 2002 memoir Brown: The Last Discovery of America, he argues that Latin America can offer the United States “a playful notion of race.” “With any discussion of race,” writes Rodriguez, “there lurks the possibility of romance.”
This is not to suggest indifference to the ways race is often used to perpetuate pain, but rather to propose that Latinos might offer an alternative disposition toward it, one in which the reality of division doesn’t preclude the possibility of reconciliation. The varied responses Latinos give when asked to identify their race are reflections of this offering. They suggest a level of comfort with treating racial identity not as discrete, as either/or, but as inevitably multifaceted.
Especially over the past few years, it has been inspiring to read Black writers, in part drawing from King, thinking imaginatively about a different outlook toward race. Conversely, although there’s been much attention paid to some aspects of Hispanics’ role in public life—such as voting patterns after the 2020 election—there hasn’t been a complementary level of attention regarding how Hispanics see themselves, or attempts to engage with how many Hispanics conceptualize race.
Perhaps this context offers the most personal opportunity for Latinos to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy. Debates about the significance of race will not abate anytime soon, but our involvement in those conversations can grow. If Latinos increasingly engage in our ongoing national polemics about race, it will in no small part be due to the example of Americans like Dr. King, who refused to acquiesce to a short-sighted view of identity, one superimposed by those too uninterested in the full complexity within each individual.
Image: Eugenio Hansen, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_King,_Jr_.svg
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