05/03/2012 07:43 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2012

Latino? Why, Yes, Thank You

In this election year, I wonder why it is that those of us identified as Latino feel the need to point out what a diverse community we are? There's no doubt we are, and that we are differentiated based on national-origin, immigrant status, and skin color. Certainly we should acknowledge our differences, but perhaps all of our assertions of difference are politically detrimental at a certain point.

Thanks to various national polls, we all know that "Latino" and "Hispanic" are not universally accepted terms among those to which they are ascribed. We also know that many who fit into the "Latino/Hispanic" census category also reject additional racial categories and choose "some other race" rather than "white" or "black." These technical questions hint at the complicated way in which the Latino moniker is positioned with regards to racial identity.

It is clear that the Latino category's status as neither black nor white has created in the Latino-identified a level of discomfort with the notion of race. For society, as well. We all noticed a shift in the Trayvon Martin case when the one-drop rule got applied to George Zimmerman and he was re-categorized as Latino as media pictures featured his newly shaved head--what appeared to be a conscious attempt at visibly marking his race. Some of the outcries pointing to a hate crime were diluted.

Because Latinos know they do not fit into the black-white binary construct of race relations that has dominated American political and cultural rhetoric, they themselves have come to believe that their racial ambiguity means that they can opt out of identifying racially. Rhetoric supports this, although not perhaps reality. Take for instance an earlier article on this website, in which Susana Gamboa states "Whites, blacks and Asian Americans are all considered a racial group. Hispanics are an ethnic group, which means although they share a common language, culture and heritage, they do not share a common race." But, most anyone who studies race today understands the basic principle that race is a socially-constructed category. And if it signifies in its most empowering form what academic Michael Dawson refers to as "linked fate" (or a sense of collective unity), then why should we pretend that Latinos can opt out of racial identification? Yes, Latinos experience differential skin color privilege, just like African-Americans; but Latinos are nevertheless marked as non-white and, increasingly, non-American.

Even though the Latino-identified may find themselves at the intersection and overlap of various racial categories, they are not immune to the racialization processes that affect all Americans. We can all name negative stereotypes associated with the Latino identity; stigmatizations as macho, sexualized, criminal, illegal, and non English-speaking. By denying that the race-ing process exists, it becomes difficult to denounce acts of racism--because, after all, if Latinos are not a race, how can they be treated with racism? And it is our common experience with racism that unites us as Latinos.

This is precisely where insisting that politicians need to focus on our diverse heritage can undermine our political power. Those of us who fit into the Latino category seem to sometimes forget to acknowledge what brings us together. It is not fitting into an oversimplified identity term, but rather our commonality of experience, the racialized way in which we are treated. It's not that Mitt Romney doesn't "get" us; it's that his campaign hasn't proposed policy that will benefit the average working-class or middle-class Latino family in terms of economic and educational opportunity, access to healthcare, or immigration reform that doesn't implement punitive second-class citizenship.

For our part, the most powerful tool available to us--coalition-building--has not been adequately activated around our politically-mobilizing, panethnic racial identity as Latinos. We too easily accept neoliberal multiculturalism as an ideal, persuaded that mobilizing around racial identity is inherently racist itself.

The Latino identity is one that can complement the ethnic-specific one. It has become clear to me that those of us who are identified as Latino are missing out on an important opportunity to link ourselves--with our diverse physical features, dialects, countries of origin--in a common cause to better the quality of life for our families and communities.

Instead of taking politicians to task for not understanding the mighty differences among and between the Latino-identified, let's take them up on their homogenizing rhetoric and use our racialized identity as a political tool. Let's coalesce around our Latino leaders pushing for our families and communities; to name a few, Luis Gutierrez, Janet Murguia, Anthony Romero, and Angelica Salas. Let's be a little more saavy about racial politics in the U.S. and instead of rejecting race-based alliances, use them to our advantage. Whether we like it or not, we are racially categorized as Latino, and it is up to us to decide whether to go into denial about it or use it strategically.