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Latinos must confront 'ingrained' anti-black racism amid George Floyd protests, some say

Ana Sanz, 26, marched for about 10 miles with a sprained ankle on Monday in Washington, D.C., to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and to demand accountability for the dehumanization of black people at the hands of law enforcement.

But Sanz, an Afro-Latinx from Washington who works with women overcoming domestic and sexual violence, said it's also time for something else — for her fellow Latinos to confront the racism and anti-blackness within the community.

Proximity to "Eurocentricity and whiteness is how our ancestors survived" through oppression, a painful legacy that still prevails and needs to be eradicated, Sanz said.

Although she was shaken by military-grade helicopters that felt like a "tornado," she said, the turbulent protests did not stop long-overdue discussions about anti-black Latino racism and discrimination.

White-presenting Latinos should use this time to "reconcile with the privilege" their light skin gives them in systems tainted with white supremacy and figure out ways to use it in a productive way, Sanz said.

Jasmine Haywood, an Afro-Latina who has researched anti-black Latino racism, told NBC News that millennial Latinos like Sanz are looking to break cycles of internalized racism and the ways Latinos perpetuate and uphold white supremacy.

"What Latinos need to realize is that our oppression is bound up and intertwined with the oppression of the black community," Haywood said. "Until they are liberated, until they are free from injustices and oppression, we will never be liberated."

Haywood said anti-blackness sentiments are "ingrained in our cultures" in part because generations of Latinos were "taught to seek partners that have a certain European or white phenotype or lighter skin to lighten their family trees."

George Zimmerman, the son of an Afro-Peruvian mother and a white father, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Jeronimo Yanez, a Latino police officer, fatally shot Philando Castile, 32, during a traffic stop. In a research paper she co-authored, Haywood described those instances as "violent white supremacy being deployed through white-passing U.S. Latinx bodies."

Nearly 60 million Latinos live in the United States, most of whom can trace back their heritages to Latin America and the Caribbean. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey reported that a quarter of all U.S. Latinos identify as Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America.

José Vilson, a math teacher in New York City who happens to be a black Latino man, grew up visiting the Dominican Republic during the Christmas holidays with his mom's side of the family. "When you go to Santo Domingo, which is the capital, almost everybody there is about as dark, if not darker, than I am. You can obviously see they're descendants of enslaved people," he told NBC News.

While Latinos largely acknowledge their ethnicity and African roots — dating to Latin America's colonial period, when mixing occurred among indigenous people, white Europeans, slaves from Africa and Asians — many still struggle to consider themselves as black. In Pew's survey, 39 percent of Afro-Latinos identified as white, while only 18 percent identified as black; even more Afro-Latinos (24 percent) said their race was "Hispanic" — which is an ethnicity, not a race.

"They don't see the correlation of how ethnicity and race are two different aspects of their identity," Sanz said, adding that some feel that "their Latinx history and culture will be erased" if they identify as black or white, "which is not the case — and that again is possibly erasing the experiences of black and indigenous people."

At the same time, Latinos of every color face overt and subtle racism and discrimination, whether they were born in the U.S. or not. Hate crimes against them are on the rise. Many Latinos are harassed and even arrested for speaking Spanish in public, and they continue to face practical roadblocks to gain access to health care and economic and educational opportunities.

Afro-Latinos 'first seen as black'

But despite their ethnic identification or the language they may speak, Afro-Latinos are "first seen as black to white America," unlike white-presenting Latinos, Haywood said, adding that people witnessed "a prime example" of that discrepancy during the recent arrest of a reporter.

CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez, whose mother is black and whose father identifies as Colombian, was arrested on live TV last week while he was covering the protests in Minneapolis — even though his media credentials appeared visible. A colleague, fellow correspondent Josh Campbell, "a white reporter also on the ground," was not arrested, according to CNN.

"He's an Afro-Latino male, and his Latinidad didn't save him in that situation. He was still arrested because he's a black man, period," said Haywood, who works at Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based organization seeking to expand educational opportunities for people.

Julio Ricardo Varela, founder of Futuro Media's Latino Rebels and a white-presenting Latino himself, thinks it is crucial that Latinos recognize racism in their histories, not just as a U.S. issue.

"White-passing Latinos really need to come to terms with their privilege in the context of anti-blackness," whether they were born in the U.S., Latin America or the Caribbean, and they "need to just accept the reality that we also come from a racist society that is embedded in white supremacy," Varela said.

"If you look at Latin America, in general, we literally carry around that baggage and bring that system with us," Varela said.

"There's been really uncomfortable, real conversations going on for years around this issue, and I'm actually encouraged that this could be the tipping point, but the important observation here is that right now, black voices need to be amplified," Varela said.

Haywood compared white supremacy to air — "you can't help but breathe it in and be a part of it" — but he said acknowledging one's racial biases is the first step in confronting anti-black racism.

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Sanz said a way to do that is by starting to pay attention to the ways in which Latinos fail, intentionally or unintentionally, to acknowledge that black people are already part of their community.

"There have been a lot of conversations and images about Latinos in solidarity with black folks, but the fact is there's already black folks in our own communities. It's really hypocritical to see that, because they're failing to recognize the presence of black folks in our own community," Sanz said.

Vilson said it is important to remember "how interconnected so many of our struggles are."

"The focus on anti-blackness does not mean that we don't care about kids in cages. Similarly, we understand that slavery also manifested in so many Asian Americans who had to build railroads in this country. We understand that the prison system was exponentially built on the backs of black people through the 13th Amendment," he added. "The more we can hone in on some of the worst offenses, we can find ways to alleviate all kinds of different aggressions and oppressions."

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