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“Latinos, Race and Empire”: Juan González Challenges the Cooptation of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

StoryJanuary 02, 2023
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We continue our Democracy Now! special broadcast with Democracy Now! co-host Juan González, who recently gave three “farewell” speeches in his hometown of New York before he moved to Chicago. González is an award-winning journalist and investigative reporter who spent 29 years as a columnist for the New York Daily News. He is a two-time winner of the George Polk Award and author of many books, including the classic “Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America,” which has just been reissued and published in Spanish. In December at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he gave an address on “Latinos, Race and Empire.” Before his CUNY talk, New York City Councilmember Alexa Avilés presented González a proclamation recognizing his remarkable achievements. (Watch in full here.)

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We’re spending the hour with Democracy Now!'s Juan González. He recently gave three farewell addresses in his hometown of New York, before moving to Chicago. We turn now to part of a speech he gave called “Latinos, Race and Empire.” He was speaking at the CUNY Graduate Center. That's the City University of New York. Just before he spoke, New York City Councilmember Alexa Avilés presented Juan with a New York City proclamation, recognizing his remarkable achievements.

ALEXA AVILÉS: It is my true, true honor to be able to offer Juan this proclamation on behalf of the New York City Council, on behalf of every Boricua that has traversed this great city, and even the one — the city that you’re going to now, which I have a little problem with, but we’re gonna let you go — to say thank you, de corazón, for everything you have done. I am here because of you. We are here because of you. And we honor you, and we thank you, and we indeed love you.

And we just — on behalf — I won’t read it. You can read it later. Pero, obviously, it could be a very long, long tome, because his accomplishments are just quite astounding. But we fought a little bit about how revolutionary City Council wanted to be, and we fought about words in this proclamation. And I would not have them whitewashing this proclamation. So I want you to know. Hopefully it captures your spirit. But we thank you, and we honor you. And on behalf of New York City Council, on behalf of my community, gracias de corazón.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s New York City Councilmember Alexa Avilés presenting Juan with a New York City Council proclamation for his decades of contribution in New York. Then Juan gave his speech. This is an excerpt of “Latinos, Race and Empire.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tonight, in this final talk, “Latinos, Race and Empire,” I hope to use the lens of my work in a variety of grassroots Latino organizations that fought to achieve social and racial justice, to oppose colonialism and imperialism, with a special focus on what they can teach today’s generation.

In retrospect, this area was perhaps my most important life’s work. It eventually led to my writing of Harvest of Empire, which, to my complete surprise, became perhaps the best-selling work in the United States on Latino history of the past 20 years. The book’s main thesis is that the massive Latino presence in the United States today — more than 62 million people and growing — is a direct result of the late 19th and early 20th century penetration and pillaging of Latin America by U.S. banks, corporations and the military. Latinos, quite simply, are the harvest of the empire — an unintended harvest, for sure, but one nonetheless. Tonight’s event is meant, in part, to commemorate the release earlier this year of a new and updated edition of Harvest, and also the publication, as Johanna mentioned, just a few weeks ago of the first Spanish-language translation of the book, titled La cosecha del imperio.

But there’s another reason why I feel the need to speak out now, before my departure, a deep concern that an unhealthy trend has begun to take hold in recent years among some sectors of Black and Latinx progressives, especially among intellectuals and academics, a trend that needs to be challenged directly through a principled but respectful debate, one that draws vital lessons from the Latino community’s long and heroic history of grassroots struggles. I’m referring to a false fixation in many progressive circles with anti-Black racism as the burning political question of the day, to the point that some well-meaning but misguided folks now claim the concept of Latinos itself or the existence of Latin America are anti-Black and white supremacist in essence.

This fixation has dovetailed perfectly with a new strategy by America’s neoliberal capitalists to finance a sprawling new diversity, equity and inclusion industry — they call it DEI — in our universities, in corporate workplaces and in the foundation world, all meant to systematically coopt any movements for radical change, to further divide and deviate the masses of the people from uniting against the real source of our common oppression — American capitalism and imperialism — and to avoid any acknowledgment of the persistence of class conflicts among people of color. It is a project the philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò exposed quite exhaustively in his recent book — and I highly recommend the book — Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else).

We who founded the New York Young Lords more than 50 years ago also confronted and rejected similar efforts. I’ve often been amazed how the image and actions of the Lords as militant revolutionaries continue to spark enduring fascination among young activists, yet too often the content of what we stood for gets lost.

It was July 26, 1969. A few dozen of us, most barely out of our teens, gathered together in Tompkins Square Park in purple berets and green field jackets and announced to the world that the Young Lords were here, determined to become the Puerto Rican arm of a social revolution that was then sweeping the world. I was 21 then, barely the oldest member of the original Central Committee. The average age of our membership was 17.

Over the next few years, we astonished ourselves and everyone around us with what we managed to accomplish, how we freed our minds, taught ourselves history and politics, changed our ways of relating to each other, forced those in power to respond to our community’s demands for systemic change, how we consciously shaped and controlled our own narrative through our own newspaper, Palante, our own radio show on WBAI, and our deft handling of the commercial and corporate press. In almost no time, we awakened an entire generation of young Latinos. I have always felt immensely privileged to have been part of this most talented, dedicated and committed group of people, at all levels, not just leadership, and still marvel at how young we were when we did all these things, how fearless in the face of all those who were older and more skeptical, who kept telling us we wouldn’t accomplish much.

For a brief period, we naively believed nothing could stop us, that a revolution was around the corner. Then came the reaction by those in power, as it always does — the police repression, the COINTELPRO campaigns of the Nixon era, the sectarianism and infighting that weakened us from within and turned us against each other, all of it made worse by our own youthful arrogance, a conceit fueled by all the initial success and all the fawning media attention that went to our heads. Mao Zedong called that death by “sugar-coated bullets.” That was followed by the counterrevolution of the Reagan-Bush era, all-out attempts to bury the memory of everything that radical groups like the Young Lords or the Black Panthers or Los Siete or La Raza Unida or SNCC represented.

But it wasn’t just the daring actions of the Lords that are important to remember — our garbage offensives, our healthcare programs, our occupations of institutions, our confrontations with the police who were terrorizing our neighborhoods, our organizing of prison inmates to demand better conditions, our protests advocating for Puerto Rican and Black studies programs at the universities. Even more significant was our analysis of race, class and empire, an analysis that stemmed from the very composition of our group. We were, after all, the sons and daughters of working-class migrants from the U.S.’s largest colonial territory. Long before decoloniality became a popular school of thought in academia, the Lords began exposing not just the political and the economic facts of colonialism, but its psychological effect, the colonized mentality first identified by Frantz Fanon. Our primitive political manifesto, written in 1972, entitled The Ideology of the Young Lords Party, expressed it best, and I quote: “We can only unchain our minds from the colonized mentality if we learn our true history, understand our culture, and work towards unity.”

The Lords were also perhaps the first Latino political group in the United States whose leadership was primarily Black. And this rarely gets acknowledged. Of the six early members of our Central Committee, three were Afro-Puerto Rican: Felipe Luciano, Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán and Juan “Fi” Ortiz. One was African American: Denise Oliver. And two were light-skinned Puerto Ricans: David Pérez and myself. More than 25% of our total membership was African American or Afro-Latino. Thus, our very existence directly challenged racial prejudice within our own communities.

In that 1972 manifesto, an essay by Denise Oliver eloquently explained what we referred to as the “non-conscious ideology” of racism among Latinos, one that had been instilled in us by colonialism. “We should not be afraid to criticize ourselves about racism,” Denise wrote. “We are all racists, not because we want to be, but because we are taught to be that way, to keep us divided, because it benefits the capitalist system. And this applies to racism toward Asians, toward other Brown people, and toward white people. White people are not the oppressor — capitalists are. We will never have socialism until we are free of these chains on our mind.” That was Denise Oliver in 1972.

Back then, we always distinguished between the individual racial biases imbued in us by colonialism and capitalism, what we referred to as “contradictions among the people,” and the systematically racist policies of the society’s major institutions, which we called “antagonistic contradictions” between classes. How different and clear that analysis is compared to all the claptrap we hear these days about diversity, equity and inclusion, with employee training sessions proliferating everywhere, that supposedly aim at rooting out anti-Black bias among individuals, but only result in confusion, mistrust and division among their participants, sessions run by so-called diversity consultants paid as much as $1,000 per hour by the very forces that perpetuate systemic racial and class oppression.

As a natural outgrowth of the Lords’ analysis, we developed close and excellent working relationships with a variety of radical groups of that era, including the Panthers, the Republic of New Afrika, the Congress of African Peoples, I Wor Kuen, the Union of Democratic Filipinos, Students for a Democratic Society, the Revolutionary Union and the Young Patriots. And we were also founding members of the original Rainbow Coalition created by the late great Panther leader Fred Hampton. In short, we never sought to focus on what divides racial and ethnic groups, but instead to elevate what unites us.

After the Lords fell apart, many of us moved on to other movements and causes, but we always held fast to the slogan, “Unite the many to defeat the few.” …

My references tonight to Fanon and Nkrumah and the evolution of class struggle among colonial peoples is for a reason. In the Young Lords, the colonial condition of our homeland was always central to our identity. Our iconic button featured a map of the island and the slogan, ”Tengo Puerto Rico en mi corazón,” “I have Puerto Rico in my heart.” And an end to U.S. colonial control was a key plank of our program. The lessons of that for today are important to grasp.

Fifty years ago, we used to say that the Puerto Rican people were a divided nation, one-third of us living in the United States, and two-thirds in Puerto Rico. Today, those statistics have been dramatically reversed. Some 5.8 million Puerto Ricans now reside in the United States, while just 3.2 million reside on the island, according to the 2020 census. Five-eighths of our population, in other words, is now here. There are today four Puerto Ricans in Congress with a vote: Nydia Velázquez, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ritchie Torres from New York and Darren Soto from Central Florida. There is only one in Congress from the island, Resident Commissioner Jennifer González. She has no vote. The bulk of the political power of the Puerto Rican people, in other words, is now here in the United States.

All of these changes affect how activists and scholars approach the real-world solutions to Puerto Rico’s colonial condition, especially in the wake of the debt crisis, PROMESA, Hurricane Maria, a series of earthquakes, all of which have combined to bring unprecedented calamity to the island’s residents.

As I have urged repeatedly for years, there’s an urgent need for more anti-imperialist scholars to dedicate themselves to analyzing how changes in the world capitalist economy have manifested themselves in Puerto Rico over the past 20 or 30 years. It is time we acknowledge that globalization has rendered historic concepts of national independence almost meaningless. You no longer need foreign armies to control the population, when you can read everyone’s mail, tap everyone’s phone, empty a country’s coffers and paralyze its economy from afar through satellites, instant wire transfers and simple cancellations of bank credit lines. Today, small nations need more creative and flexible tactics to defend themselves from bullying by larger ones, to assert national sovereignty in an increasingly interdependent world. And Puerto Rican activists will never successfully tackle such problems with rote references to conditions 50 years ago.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, only that we must work harder than ever to find solutions, and that we must never forget to ask what class interest is served by any solution. My observations tonight are not meant to needlessly cast fault on anyone, only to emphasize that the crucial test of our ideas and actions, no matter how high-sounding the words, comes in the crucible of popular struggle, especially if that struggle requires confrontation with the very institutions to which you belong or that employ you. That is how it was more than 50 years ago when I first became a Young Lord. And judging by the widespread youth rebellions across the nation, the Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights and climate change movements, that is how it will continue to be in the future, because all the accumulated knowledge and experience of radicals and progressives and revolutionaries mean nothing unless we draw the right lessons, unless they lead us to a freer, more just world, one where the fight against class oppression and empire remains at the center of everything we do.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan González, speaking at the CUNY Graduate Center. That’s the City University of New York. His speech, “Latinos, Race and Empire.” You can watch the full speech — actually, the trilogy of his speeches, all three of his farewell speeches, at democracynow.org.

And that does it for today’s show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Mary Conlon. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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