Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Curious Case of Racism In Puerto Rico

After living and working in PR for some years, I am still always perplexed when a friendly Puerto Rican brings up the issue of racism and how it does not exist in PR.  Perhaps this is an attempt to try to portray PR in its best light, or it could be wishful thinking.  Whatever the case, it could not be further from the truth.

So what accounts for this disconnect of whether PR is racist or not?  I believe most PR have an overly simplistic notion of what constitutes racism.  Sure, the KKK does not exist in PR, there is no history of lynching, and the mixed population of people get along relatively peacefully.

But what the Puerto Rican misses is that its variant of anti-black racism is WORSE than that of the US mainland.  How could I say that, you ask?  Well, racial discrimination is an everyday phenomenon in PR.  This finally was brought to light by Reggaeton star Tego Calderon who hails from Loiza, PR, the town most associated with black Puerto Ricans.  Calderon wrote that racism is worse in PR because it is universally denied.

This denial comes in the form of Black Puerto Ricans claiming there is no racism, yet they consider themselves white on self-identification forms.  It comes in the form of Black Puerto Ricans claiming there is no racism, yet they usually do not even consider attending university in PR as it "is just not for them."  It comes in the form of Black Puerto Ricans claiming there is no racism, yet they know that the highest paying professions and most lucrative jobs are reserved for "Los Finos," or the white elite Puerto Ricans.

One other fallacy in Puerto Rico is the "We are all Puerto Ricans, whatever our color so we have not racism here."  This may be true, but most Americans consider themselves "all Americans" regardless of color, but that does not preclude the existence of racism there.  The family of all Puerto Ricans still has a color caste system that treats people differently according to color, regardless of their status as a Puerto Rican.

Yet another fallacy from the island is "Puerto Ricans are not racist because most of us have some level of black blood."  How ridiculous is that notion?  Adolf Hitler is said to have Jewish ancestors, yet he was more anti-Jewish than any other person in history.  Further, many white Americans have native American and even African blood, but that never stopped them from killing natives or discriminating against blacks over the years.

From a personal standpoint, a friend of mine came to Puerto Rico as a manager of a pretty big organization.  His status as an African American was a bone of contention when he began instituting changes in an under-performing institution.  He was resisted tooth and nail, falsely accused of managerial misconduct, and even stereotyped as creating fear in the office.  After a tumultuous year, my friend had enough documented evidence to begin firing people and replacing them with high performers with integrity.  But his ordeal of insubordination from a few subordinates was based on his skin color as most whites in PR could not handle a black person in a position of authority over them.

Finally, when a PR gentleman proudly boasted to me how PR has no racism, I asked him, "Could a black Puerto Rican ever be elected Governor of PR?"  He thought for a moment, and said, "Probably not, I see your point."

So for all of the racist history of the US mainland, African Americans are well represented in the middle and upper classes, attend university in the thousands and increasingly obtain advanced degrees.  They have multi-millionaires who are not associated with sports or entertainment, and even the current President of the USA is African American.  In contrast, black PR languish in isolation on the island and they are shunned from partaking in the means of social mobility reserved for non-blacks there.

There is indeed racism in Puerto Rico, and it is high time to stop the charade down there.  Having said that, black Puerto Ricans themselves have the onus of stopping the denial and starting the move to educate themselves and build institutions that increase their progress.  Until that happens, they will remain the ridiculed demographic group that does not realize that the joke is on them.