Revealing the Race-Based Realities of Workforce Exclusion

Revealing the Race-Based Realities of Workforce Exclusion

NACLA Report on the Americas
Volume 47, Number 4 (Winter 2014)
pages 26-29

Tanya Katerí Hernández, Professor of Law
Fordham University

Advocates in the fight against poverty in Latin America often center class above race as the factor that most determines Afro-descendants’ life-chances. But a growing movement is setting the record straight.

Believing that the black population will be able to reach basic equality independently from what happens with the rest of poor Colombians, within general social policy, or economic growth…is dreaming in a vacuum,” said sociologist Daniel Mera Villamizar in a 2009 El Tiempo column on the Colombian government’s workplace affirmative action measures. Mera continues: “To resolve the historic ambiguity between racism and classism…by saying that race is the determining factor, is to buy a ticket to a conflict we don’t even know.” As critics of the column noted at the time, Mera’s words were at odds with many of the demands of the growing movements for racial justice across Latin America that have proliferated over the past 15 years. These groups are engaged in the fight to raise awareness of the ways race-based discrimination in Latin America cannot be sufficiently explained by the analyses—touted by many advocates and organizations engaged in anti-poverty struggles—that class is the determining mechanism of social and economic marginalization.

There are approximately 150 million people of African descent in Latin America, representing just over 30% of the total population and more than 40% of the poor. Advocates for racial equality in Latin America testify statistically and anecdotally to the fact that Afro-descendants face the frequent perception that they are undesirable elements of society, and are marginalized in politics, media, public life, the job market, and education systems. Mera’s call to avoid conflict by holding up class above race as the most salient factor in determining the life-chances of Afro-descendants echoes the notion—still widely held in much of Latin America—of the “myth of racial democracy.”

Increasingly critiqued over the past 20 years, the myth holds that Latin America’s racial mixture (mestizaje/mestiçagem) creates racial harmony and inherently guards against racial discord and inequality. This denial of racism is often rooted in a belief system that contrasts itself to the history of Jim Crow legislation in the United States. There is no more important place to understand the persistence of race-based marginalization in Latin America than in the increasingly well documented practices of labor market discrimination…

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