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Camilo M. Ortiz

Camilo M. Ortiz , Latinos Nowhere in Sight: Erased by Racism, Nativism, the Black-white Binary, and Authoritarianism , 13 Rutgers Race & the Law Review 29 (2012) (150 Footnotes Omitted)

In May 2010, two weeks after the Arizona state legislature passed Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070), Juan Varela was fatally shot in the neck by his next door neighbor, Gary Kelley. Prior to the killing, Kelley had repeatedly said to Varela, “Hurry up and go back to Mexico, or you're gonna die[!] ” It is uncertain what specific events led Kelley to shoot Varela in his front yard. However, it is known that Varela was not a recent arrival to the United States, but rather a second-generation, native-born U.S. citizen.

In the days that followed Varela's murder, local news reporters speculated that the shooting might have resulted from the numerous altercations that had occurred between Kelley and Varela, was the result of the intoxicated state Kelley appeared to be in at the time of the shooting, or even that the killing was just a sudden and unexplained act by Kelley, since he always got along with his other Latino neighbors. Other news reports speculated that the motive behind the murder of Varela might have been linked to America's fear of and distaste towards immigrants. This link between Varela's murder and America's panic towards Mexican immigrants is logical. After all, cable television commentators, local radio show hosts, and politicians have repeated and endorsed the ideas that all undocumented individuals from Mexico are criminals, secretly harbor a “reconquista” agenda, and are responsible for the rise in infectious diseases in the United States.

Some scholars have speculated that, in general, anti-Latino violence, including anti-immigrant violence, is directly linked to nativism. Akin to nationalists, American nativists maintain that national unity is built on the belief that the United States is made up of insiders and outsiders: insiders who belong to the nation, and outsiders who are in the nation, but not of it. To American nativists, insiders are native-born citizens who have assimilated the dominant culture through the removal of any foreign connections. Conversely, American nativists see outsiders as “foreign” or “un-American” individuals who have threatened the American way of life because they have failed to assimilate into the dominant Anglo-American national identity. However, a nativist's dislike of a U.S. citizen like Varela results from a different form of nativism which other scholars have termed racialized nativism. A combination of racism and nativism, racialized nativism targets particular ethnic groups, like Latinos, as foreigners in the United States and views them as societal threats specifically because of their “physical features or cultural traits . . . .” To the racist nativist, Latino native-born U.S. citizens living in the United States are perceived as outsiders because of their Spanish surnames, non-Anglo culture, and non-Anglo physical appearance. They are thus unlike European immigrants who were considered foreigners by eighteenth and nineteenth century nativists, but were nevertheless, able successfully to assimilate into the dominant Anglo culture because they were not immigrants of color.

Seen in this light, anti-Latino violence is particularly intractable because Latinos find themselves at the center of both nativism and racism. Nativism is premised on the idea that Others coming into the nation have to assimilate into the dominant Anglo culture through the elimination of their foreign traits. Racism is premised on the idea that Others (such as Latino U.S. citizens) who are in this country should be excluded from the dominant Anglo culture because of their alleged barbarism and uncivilized nature. Thus, Latinos, whether documented or not, find themselves denied full acceptance by the dominant Anglo culture because they are viewed as either internal or external threats to the nation.

Anti-Latino violence may also be a function of the ambiguous categorization of Latinos within the predominant social discourse. While the black-white paradigm of American racial thought illuminates a core piece of American history and society, including the centrality of slavery and white racism, it also focuses on two constituent racial groups, the Black and the White. As such, the binary not only marginalizes other people of color, but also omits their history and struggle for equality. These non-black, non-white Others are, therefore, rendered racially ambiguous.

In particular, the black-white paradigm converts racial discrimination against Latinos as perceived “foreigners,” by analogy, into some familiar shared experience with either blacks or whites, but not in terms of their own unique brown experience. Latinos emerge as an absent racial/ethnic group; they are racially ambiguous. If viewed as if they were black, they are deemed to be racially inferior to whites, even though Latinos do not share the same historical and recognizable experiences as blacks. Or, if Latinos are viewed as white, they are considered racially superior to blacks, even though they do not share the same political, economic, or social privileges as Anglos. Thus, in the minds of many Anglo-Americans, violence against Latinos is neither clearly decipherable nor readily redressable; it is vague, unstructured, and therefore tolerated.

In this article, I argue that the psychological concept of authoritarianism enables the theories of racism, nativism, and the black-white paradigm to merge and explain Anglo prejudice and violence against Latinos in the United States. As a distinct phenomenon made popular by social scientists in the 1950s, authoritarianism describes a type of personality with a philosophy and attitude towards life that seeks conditions that limit human freedom. Most notably, the authoritarian personality has a predominant set of well-defined traits which include, among others: intolerance for ambiguity, conventionalism, suspicion of the Other, and closed-mindedness. Thus, as a personality type that thrives on fear, hate, and ignorance, the authoritarian operates through power, dominance, and irrational beliefs against those who challenge convention.

Through the authoritarian lens, violence against Latinos emerges as a specific distaste towards immigration because authoritarianism is suspicious and distrustful of outsiders. Violence against Latinos also emerges as a product of nativism because authoritarianism seeks to maintain order and national unity. It can also be seen as a result of Latinos' ambiguous racial categorization within the black-white binary because authoritarianism seeks conformity, certainty, and clear lines and categories (us-them; black-white).

Thus, under the authoritarian personality theory, the murder of Varela can be understood as an interconnection between anti-immigration sentiments, racialized nativism, and the ambiguous racial categorization of Latinos such as Varela. Viewed in this manner, the historical context and the crimes against Latinos are acknowledged, as well as the necessity of considering such violence as hate crimes with all the serious political and racial consequence that this entails.

Part Two provides an overview of two significant historical periods, the 1850s and the 1940s, when Mexican-Americans were publicly persecuted through lynchings and legal manipulation resulting from prevailing racist, nativist, and authoritarian attitudes towards that group. I will show that the present day violence against Latinos, as exemplified by the murder of Juan Varela, is directly tied to the historical, racial nativist, and authoritarian beliefs that first came to light in mid-nineteenth and twentieth century America. Part Three examines the relationships among nativism, racism, and the black-white paradigm of race. Part Four discusses the key role that authoritarianism plays within this framework and in the context of Latinos in the United States. My analysis provides a more comprehensive lens through which to examine the Varela murder. It is also highly instructive with regard to the situation of all Latinos in the United States who are viewed as targets or become victims of racism, nativism, and authoritarianism.