We welcome a guest post today from Sonia Song-Ha Lee, author of Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City. In the first book-length history of Puerto Rican civil rights in New York City, Sonia Lee traces the rise and fall of an uneasy coalition between Puerto Rican Activists and African American activists from the 1950s through the 1970s. Previous work has tended to see blacks and Latinos as either naturally unified as “people of color” or irreconcilably at odds as two competing minorities. Lee demonstrates instead that Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York City shaped the complex and shifting meanings of “Puerto Rican-ness” and “blackness” through political activism.
In today’s post, Lee revisits the forces that helped unify Puerto Rican and African American activists into a coalition during the Civil Rights Movement.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many of us assume that Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans did not play a significant role in the civil rights movement. In particular, we assume that Latinos are a perpetual group of immigrants who have never been politically organized enough to demand for their rights effectively. Yet Puerto Ricans played a pivotal role in the building of the civil rights movement in New York City—one of the less-heralded but still vital sites of movement.
In 1960, Puerto Ricans composed the second largest minority group in New York City at 7.9 percent, while African Americans made up 14 percent of the city’s population. Today, we tend to assume that Latinos are neither black nor white, yet in those years many Puerto Ricans’ skin tone was dark enough that New Yorkers saw them and treated them as “black.” The neighborhood in which Puerto Rican migrants settled in the highest numbers in the postwar era, East Harlem, also bordered Central Harlem, which was home to an ethnically diverse population of black New Yorkers, black southern migrants, and Afro-Caribbean immigrants. This geographic proximity facilitated interactions between blacks and Puerto Ricans, as the two groups lived in the same public housing projects and received social services from the same settlement organizations.
In the early 1950s, it was not clear how Puerto Rican New Yorkers would engage with local black civil rights activists. Although most Puerto Ricans were well aware of the fact that white New Yorkers saw them as “racially mixed” and “culturally backward,” others hoped to pass as “white” on an individual basis. Many, however, recognized that their racialization was only intensifying in the postwar era, and that they could not overcome it unless they publicly acknowledged it and fought against it by allying themselves with black activists.
Black and Puerto Rican activists utilized black and Puerto Rican nationalism to forge mutually reinforcing movements. Even as some antipoverty leaders of color used cultural nationalism in an exclusive manner to compete for antipoverty funds, many others saw that “black pride” and “Puerto Rican pride” had more commonalities than differences. Many black educators supported bilingual education by seeing it as a pedagogical tool useful in the creation of a multicultural, antiracist world. Puerto Rican parents supported the community control movement—despite its reputation as a primarily “black” movement—because they recognized that they could not effectively advocate for their children’s educational needs unless they collaborated with black parents.
The history of black-Puerto Rican coalitions demonstrates what is possible for the next generation of Americans. Certainly, this history does not show that blacks and Latinos share a natural sensibility as “people of color.” Puerto Ricans’ racism and African Americans’ privileging of a North American “black” identity have posed real frictions between the two groups. Still, this history also debunks the notion that blacks and Latinos are naturally opposing groups.
We can choose to see the categories of “blackness” and “Latinidad” as distinct and fixed, or we can see the many overlaps that exist between the two groups. Blackness and Latinidad do not have to follow the genealogies of white-and-black racial constructs. They do not have to be seen as mutually incompatible. Any successful movement toward social justice will require the formation of coalitions that bind people across racial, ethnic, gender, and class differences. The commonalities that exist between blacks and Latinos’ political interests may only represent one small part of this greater coalition, but it may be significant enough to catalyze other alliances.
The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should not remain as a mere celebration of the past. Remembering those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of racial equality should inspire us to reach for a more expansive vision of racial justice. The plight of undocumented immigrants might yet forge the most vibrant civil rights movement of the twenty-first century. Activists across the nation have been protesting the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants by engaging in acts of civil disobedience. As immigrant detainees are becoming the fastest-growing segment of the American prison population, few people can deny the connections that exist between the struggles of black and Latino communities.
As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued, each of us can renew or reject history’s “practices of power and domination” through “the past we choose to acknowledge.” Recognizing the overlaps that exist between black and Latino political interests may help us move one step closer toward a world of racial equality.
Sonia Song-Ha Lee is assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. Her book Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City is now available.