Racial Discrimination: Latin America Versus U.S.

 -  12/5/12

Tanya Hernandez looks at racial subordination in the Americas and how that plays a role in the workplace.

As a child, Tanya Hernandez traveled between the United States and Latin America and noticed the commonalities in how people of African descent were stereotyped and limited across the Americas. Now a professor of law at Fordham University, Hernandez focuses her research on Latin America and just published the book Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law, and the New Civil Rights Response.

She discusses the similarities between racial discrimination in the United States and Latin America and how her research can help identify ways to promote diversity in the workplace.

Can you explain the type of racial discrimination you study in your book Racial Subordination in Latin America?
The book examines all forms of social exclusion that persons of African ancestry experience in Latin America, including workplace discrimination, housing discrimination, public accommodations segregation and educational discrimination. What has been distinctive about racial exclusion in Latin America is that it has often not taken the form of officially enacted laws of racial segregation as experienced particularly in the United States with Jim Crow in the South. Instead, customary law — the enforcement of unwritten laws established by long usage rather than legislative enactment — has been used as a tool of racial exclusion in Latin America.

How would you compare the situation in Latin America with racial discrimination presently in the U.S.?
The U.S.’s growing mythology about being a “post-racial” nation has many parallels with Latin America. The early U.S. civil rights movement was astonishingly successful at making the goal of racial equality a stated national norm and catalyzing government programs designed to provide concrete access to jobs and education. However, the movement’s very success contributes to the notion that blacks and other persons of color no longer require legal assistance in accessing equal opportunity.

Indeed, President Obama’s 2008 election is viewed as the culmination of U.S. racial transcendence, so much that now the United States presents itself as “racially innocent” in much the same way Latin America has long claimed to be because of its absence of official Jim Crow racial segregation laws. At the same time neither region has eradicated systemic racism, as evidenced by the longstanding institutional racial disparities in employment, educational attainment, access to health care and capital, residential segregation, and disparate incarcerations and conviction rates across the Americas.

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