By Wayne Jebian
Local Latinos agree that racism is on the rise with one veteran journalist proclaiming, “This community is being used as a scapegoat by some politicians in order to bully through their ultraconservative agendas.”
The strong words come from Hugo Balta, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and an ESPN producer, in response to a recent Associated Press poll that found racist attitudes toward both blacks and Latinos have risen over recent years. Using the first term of Barack Obama as its benchmark, the study found implicit racism toward blacks climbing from 49 to 56 percent, while racist attitudes toward Latinos jumped from 52 to 57 percent just in the past year.
It’s demonstrated in small ways, too, say Latinos on the street. Wanda Martinez, a 24 year old mother living in Hartford, most weekdays takes the Park Street bus through the largely Latino section of the city. “Mothers with strollers will come on the bus, and if they’re Latina, fewer people get up for them,” she says, adding that often times the bus drivers themselves will ask passengers to stand up to let mothers sit down. “If a white lady comes aboard, people move right away. There’s respect. It’s like people think a Puerto Rican should just be more used to standing up. Has this gotten worse over the years? It certainly hasn’t gotten any better.”
While most Latinos questioned by CTLatinoNews.com perceive racism to be on the rise, none linked it to the presidency of Barack Obama, perceiving the increase to date farther back than the scope of the survey and to have arisen from other causes.
Balta puts the time frame of changing attitudes at five to ten years, and he blames the phenomenon at least in part on the economy. “Hispanics, specifically undocumented immigrants, are being blamed for the social and economic problems of the U.S.,” he says.
However, prior to the economic downturn, nativist sentiments and calls for a fence along the border with Mexico were a prominent feature in election campaigns. Continued Balta, “For now, without any clear solution to the immigration crisis by lawmakers, Hispanics will continue to be the targets of many who see them as the cause if their problems.”
Several people questioned said that the issue of illegal immigration has fueled racist attitudes. At the same time, the presence of a debate on legal status allows people to claim that their views are not racially motivated. “There are a lot of code words – aliens, illegals and the like – but what the code words really mask is racism,” said Juan Figueroa, a Meriden-based attorney and former president of the Universal Health Foundation. “At bottom, people become afraid and their worst instincts take over. With Latinos, our sheer numbers and the fact that we speak another language are factors behind racism.”
Diana Rios, professor of Communication Sciences and Latino/Caribbean Studies (El Instituto) at University of Connecticut, says, “There’s a backlash against Latinos in general, and it’s connected specifically and strongly to the immigration issue. The anxiety over immigration is exacerbated by the economic context: People are afraid of losing their jobs and thinking about who their competition may be, whether in construction, services, or other jobs.”
Professor Rios points to Pew Research Center data that corroborate the Associated Press findings, but she has personally overheard anti-Latino comments on the ground. For instance, she recalled landscaping contractors speculating that competing crews with Hispanic workers had an unfair advantage because they hired “illegals.”
By Wayne Jebian