Civil Rights, Supreme Court

Latinos and Ferguson

A survey by Pew Research during the height of the Ferguson protests revealed that Latinos were not as interested as blacks and whites in the news surrounding the death of Michael Brown.

Of those surveyed, a mere 18 percent said to be following the events “very closely”—lower than blacks and whites at 54 and 25 percent, respectively.

Pew did not explain the gulf, but a few interrelated factors come to mind: limited news coverage by Spanish-language outlets; little journalistic presence on Twitter, where a number of reporters have been providing live updates; and the fact that Pew conducted the survey by phone, which may or may not be at odds with a conflict that has largely played out on social media.

Another factor stands out. According to U.S. Census figures, only 2.7 percent of St. Louis County, which encompasses Ferguson, is Latino. And Latinos only make up 1.2 percent of Ferguson itself. The absence of Latino faces in the protests may have contributed to this apparent apathy.

Independent of the numbers, what happened in Ferguson and the Latino reality in the United States are part of a shared history of discrimination. For decades, both blacks and Latinos have had much in common as targets of government-sanctioned abuse and inequality; Ferguson is only a page off the same book.

American jurisprudence provides an example. In May, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, the historic equal-protection case, turned 60. What most people don’t know is that almost a decade prior to Brown, the courts had to intervene in a case where Latino children were suffering the same kind of discrimination as blacks in public education.

In Mendez v. Westminster, decided in 1946, a federal court in California declared that the segregation of children of Mexican descent “foster[s] antagonisms in the children and suggest[s] inferiority among them where none exists,” and that such  action by the state “manifests a clear purpose to arbitrarily discriminate against the pupils of Mexican ancestry and to deny to them the equal protection of the laws.”

Does that sound familiar?

Mendez was only one link in a long chain of segregation in California and the Southwest, where it wasn’t uncommon to find “Mexican seats” or “Mexican days” in places of public accommodation—the same separate-but-equal treatment experienced by blacks in the South.

But Mendez never made it to the Supreme Court, and thus it went largely unnoticed. It wasn’t until Hernandez v. Texas, decided two weeks prior to Brown, that the high court, for the first time, acknowledged that the Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws to all, not just to blacks and whites. For the first time, Latinos had a legal weapon with a Hispanic name to call their own.

The weapon, it turned out, was of little use. With the passage of time, the Hernandez breakthrough all but vanished.

It is evident in today’s criminalization and stigmatization of a person’s immigration status. In the mass deportations of people without a criminal record. In the rampant use of force by border patrol agents. In the lack of protections for unskilled migrant workers. In the elimination of affirmative action in states such as Michigan and Florida. In laws that hinder the right to vote. In the gross application of stop-and-frisk tactics in New York and Philadelphia. In the high number  of Latinos in federal and state custody. In the dearth of economic opportunities stemming from some or all of the above.

It is for those reasons that Ferguson’s problem is also a Latino problem. The protests of the past few weeks are rooted in a shared legacy of discrimination and discontent.

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