CHICAGO — There’s a lot of fear in the Latino community right now of being targeted by someone with a grudge against immigrants.
But attributing the unease to the recent shootings in El Paso, which specifically targeted Mexicans, overlooks the relentless struggle of being nonwhite in America. And the tension ratcheted up after Donald Trump first launched his presidential campaign on the premise that Mexicans were “rapists” and “murderers.”
The journalist Rachel Hatzipanagos recently wrote in The Washington Post: “Across racial and ethnic groups, about two-thirds [of respondents to a Pew Research Center study] said that it has become more common for people to express racist views since Trump became president. Researchers say victims of racism experience negative health outcomes. Studies have linked Trump’s rise to an increase in premature births among Latinas, and others have tied it to increased anxiety and depression in the general Latinx population.”
I worry most about all the Hispanic children who will grow up not trusting white people.
I grew up in a friendly, predominantly white, working-class neighborhood in Chicago — the kind where plumbers, nurses and sanitation workers were able to own a home and send their kids to the local Catholic school. I can’t imagine how different my life would have been had my parents lived with suspicion or rancor from their neighbors.
It’s impossible to say for sure, but it seems unlikely that I’d be as successful had Mrs. Hannigan, who lived three doors down from me, not made it her habit to sit on the front porch just around the time the ice cream truck came by, ready to give me her spare change so I could buy an orange push-up.
Would I have grown up to marry a white man if the lovely and persistent German-born lady who lived next door to my family had not navigated the protective bubble my strict father enforced around me to introduce me to rocky road ice cream for the first time?
Would I have excelled academically through an elite college-prep high school if my white elementary school teachers hadn’t nurtured me, teased out my strengths and held me to their highest standards?
It’s difficult to know, but the difference is striking between those who grew up being oppressed by people who didn’t respect nonwhites’ language or culture and those who were treated kindly.
In his 2017 essay “My President Was Black,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that Barack Obama’s biracial upbringing imbued him with the ability to trust whites, resulting in Obama being “phenomenal — the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people.”
Will Latino children be able to trust white people with that same level of confidence after the Trump presidency?
If not, it would be foolish to lay that shame solely at the feet of our racist, anti-Latino president. Stop to consider that — though the tenor of attitudes toward immigrants has gotten more hostile under Trump — decades of underinvestment in Hispanic students have kept them isolated from the very people, whites, they need to understand in order to succeed in this country.
Though low-income students of all racial groups are likelier to learn beside more middle-class pupils than ever before, racial segregation in schools has intensified. In fact, Latino children are likely to enter elementary schools this year with fewer white peers than a generation ago, according to a new study published in “Educational Researcher,” the peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
On average, the nation’s Latino children attended elementary schools in which nearly 40% of their schoolmates were white in 1998, but that fell to 30% by 2010, according to data analyzed by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Maryland; and the University of California, Irvine.
The net result is that between 1998 and 2010, Latinos nationwide became more segregated within districts enrolling at least 10% Latino pupils, including in large urban districts.
We can’t blame that on Trump.
That’s on a society, in which the best teachers and resources go to affluent students. And the least trained teachers populate the most under-resourced and highly segregated schools, in which students are most dependent on school for an education.
Inequality — and Latino distrust — stands to haunt our country for decades to come.
Cepeda is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.