On the Importance of Building Black-Brown Coalitions to Fight Injustice

By Zahida Sherman

My new home of Los Angeles is a constant stream of cultural richness with that oh-so-distinct Cali swag: always laid back but steadily creating the next trend. It’s everything I never dreamed possible and sometimes more. Aside from the ever-present glamour of LA—and believe me, it doesn’t disappoint—the very best part of living in SoCal is that in just thirty minutes (sans traffic), I can see the only person I ever loved before we met including my 16-month-old niece, whose vigor for life’s simple joys makes me forget that she’s growing up in a society that places little value in Black lives, especially little Black girls.

Upon stepping off the plane at LAX, it’s immediately clear that Latinos run this town, at least numerically speaking. Data from this summer’s U.S. census backs it up: L.A. County officially has the largest Latino population in the nation. The Compton of today looks more like Little Mexico than the Black hip-hop scenes of the 90’s. But having grown up in Seattle and lived in mostly White environments since I was 18, SoCal offsets my cultural GPS. The codes to switch in and out of are different. It’s an adjustment, to say the least, that forces me to contemplate a larger quandary that’s had me puzzled since I arrived: Where does blackness fit into the schematics of a heavily Latino environment? What will my niece learn about being Black in a brown majority?

My niece won’t grow up in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Baldwin Hills, Inglewood, or LaDera Heights (Black Beverly Hills). She lives in a tucked away and slightly more affordable Latino suburb. When my niece goes to the park with her grandmother, she doesn’t see children who look like her. And her Latino peers have already started pointing out her blackness to her. As much as my family and I do our best to supplement her environment with Black-centered representations, we’re a little worried for her racial identity.

And our worry isn’t unfounded. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that L.A. City and County are far from the paragon of African-American and Latino relations. Two years ago, a Latino gang ran a campaign of racial terror to expel an African-American family from the neighboring city of Compton. And last year, African-American apartment units in a predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights were anonymously bombed with Molotov cocktails. As Latino numbers have risen dramatically in the L.A. area, African Americans have at times been violently expelled.

Things haven’t been any less bleak between Latinos and African Americans in popular culture either. In 2011, Kat Williams attempted to check a Mexican-American heckler at a Phoenix show by accusing Mexican Americans of being ungrateful immigrants and wrongfully daring to overstep African Americans in the U.S. racial hierarchy. It was an embarrassing encounter, but there’s truth in jest: many African Americans have feared that the rise of the Latino population will translate into our being bypassed for political and economic access. More recently, in the 2014 “Black Santa” episode of LA-based show Blackish, Dre echoed similar sentiments while successfully unseating a Latina coworker from the role of Santa Claus.

Though African Americans and Latinos have different complexities in our fight for inclusion, we share similar struggles when it comes to police brutality, causing many to see this as a point of unification. In 2012, the police killings of two Latinos in Anaheim sparked local riots and national protests, capturing the media’s attention, momentarily. But discussions of police brutality against Latinos quieted shortly after due to an inability to connect the killings to a larger historical context of racial terrorism in the same way African Americans killed by police do and due to lack of data on the percentage of Latinos who are murdered by police. Even with the best data available, Latinos make up almost 17 percent of the U.S. population but about 14 percent of police casualties, whereas Black people are about 12 percent of the U.S. population but make up 25 percent of police killings.

The limited data on police brutality pose a challenge to coalition building, but an unexpected space may point to another way. Walter Thompson-Hernandez, a researcher at the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, launched a series of pictures of Afro-Latino Los Angelinos, aka “Blaxicans,” on Instagram in an attempt to challenge how we think about America’s racial present and increasingly diverse racial future. “Blaxicans of L.A.” stems from his two-year research wherein he interviewed fellow “Blaxicans” about their racial identity. When asked about the significance of his work in a recent L.A. Times article, Thompson-Hernandez stated, “You have relatives who are being held in detention centers and relatives who have been gunned down for the simple fact that they are black…this is a reality that you simply cannot escape. It's important that this reality is recognized.”

I’m not sure what the future holds for my niece as she grows up Black in a Latino majority. But I hope that she can respect the contributions of both groups to U.S. society in general and the L.A. area specifically. In the meantime, I say a prayer that God keeps the angels over my new city.

Photo: Shutterstock

Zahida Sherman is a black culture enthusiast and diversity and inclusion professional. When she’s not at work, she’s either blogging, watching reality TV, or traveling the world. Check her out at blackonbothsides.com.

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