Barack Obama's complex meditation on race in America opened a window for national reflection. Irrespective of how it impacts his quest for the presidency, his words became a catalyst in moving us to think about where we fit in the effort to narrow the gap between the ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution and the realities we live in today. While Obama's speech focused understandably on the historic divide between white and black Americans, it holds great resonance for all Americans, including our own Latino community.
As Latinos in the United States, we confront a contradiction. Even as we have become increasingly visible as a swing constituency in electoral politics and a political force in many states, many members of our community have become a target of institutionalized discrimination that is unprecedented since the end of Jim Crow.
Obama argued that black anger and white resentment distract from the real culprits in the economic squeeze that stokes that very same resentment and anger. Today, the Latino community, particularly immigrants - both documented and undocumented - have become the scapegoat for many Americans' resentment, especially as the state of the economy grows ever more tenuous.
A recently published FBI report highlighted that hate crimes against Latinos have grown 25 percent since 2004 and that in 2006 Latinos represented over 60 percent of victims of crimes motivated by the victim's ethnicity or national origin. Last year alone, there were over 1400 state and local pieces of legislation introduced against undocumented migrants.
The problems facing immigrant workers in the United States have become quite serious. As Jorge Bustamante, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants for the United Nations, noted in a March 2008 report, policies towards immigrants - whether legal or unauthorized - violate international human rights agreements with the use of such practices as the use of indefinite detention for immigrants; bypassing due process for non-citizens; and the design of guest-workers programs that expose workers to exploitation and provide limited ability to hold officials and private industry accountable.
Like African Americans, we Latinos must struggle against not just personal manifestations of discrimination, but also against the institutions and systems that perpetuate economic inequality - and in the case of soaring numbers of economically displaced Mexicans - drive them away from their homes and communities in search of opportunities that have dried up at home.
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Yet as Obama suggested, blaming others for our own problems is a dead end street. A more productive avenue lies in examining and challenging structures that limit the opportunities available to our communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
In recent years a growing number of Americans - including Latinos - have come to recognize that NAFTA's promise that lifting controls on trade and investment would lead to rising wages and growing equality for both Mexican and U.S. workers, thereby lowering motivations for Mexican immigration have not panned out.
NAFTA's failures, however, have not dimmed the ardor of free trade advocates who represent the elite sectors of both economies who have benefited. Nevertheless, for the majority of Mexican and American workers NAFTA's results can be measured in wage stagnation and job loss. For Mexico's rural sector the results have been particularly destabilizing leading to the loss of millions of jobs and becoming a lead factor in an accelerating out-migration from Mexico that has become one of the largest sustained mass migrations in human history.
The pressure on leaders of the Latino community to accept free trade orthodoxy is intense. Those who question why we should trust market forces to solve every problem we confront are quickly branded as irresponsible and politically unrealistic "protectionists." Nevertheless, acknowledging and honestly confronting the widening chasm of inequality that is the product of our current trade policies is the path of brave leadership and key to unlocking the psychology of prejudice that is so basic to all our efforts to "form a more perfect union".
Dr. Gabriela Lemus is the Executive Director of The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA)
Hector E. Sanchez is the Mexico-DC Policy Education Coordinator for Global Exchange