Brown Power vs. Black Power

Shannah Kurland discusses how Latino politicans targeted progressive black incumbents in Providence last fall.

By Shannah Kurland Mar 15, 2001

An explosion of Latino voting in Providence, Rhode Island this fall should have been a cause for celebration. Instead, it has revealed an electoral quicksand that pits Latinos against African Americans and separates identity from ideology–conditions ripe for manipulation by an entrenched white power structure whose corruption is legendary.

Some people think that Latinos (backed by the white power elite) made a deliberate and reactionary grab at what little black political power exists in Providence; others see the conflict as a predictable, if frustrating, outgrowth of the demographic shift that has concentrated the potential electoral power of all people of color in the same few districts. Either way, there was no net increase in elected officials of color in a campaign marked by a complete absence of substantive discussions of policy or politics that would promote social justice.

The institutions that guided the surge of Latino voting emphasized themes of Latino pride and power, while the multi-racial teams supporting progressive black incumbents spoke of the courage and integrity of their candidates without articulating any racial justice message. All of this energy was squeezed into the three neighborhoods with the largest concentration of people of color. People of color throughout the rest of the city were left hungry for action, with no place to go. The white power structure was never called on to defend itself.

Providence is not unique; the effective electoral displacement of African Americans by Latinos is playing out from Southern California to Miami, and countless places in between. Does the expansion of Latino political power have to come at the expense of black representation? And beyond the identity of the individuals representing districts of people of color, are our communities even talking about racial justice when we engage in electoral work?

A Changing Population

For most of the last 26 years, Providence has been ruled by Mayor Vincent (Buddy) Cianci, a brilliant old-school Italian machine politician with illusions of mafia grandeur, who was once convicted of felony assault on his estranged wife’s lover. Cianci’s agenda of corporate welfare through downtown development is driven not so much by ideological preference as by a burning desire to consolidate personal power and wealth. He is currently the subject of a Department of Justice investigation that has so far resulted in the conviction of three members of his administration for various graft-related crimes and the indictment of his former chief of staff. Many folks feel that the best preparation for finding your way around City Hall is to watch The Sopranos a few times.

Cianci’s relationship to communities of color has grown cruder over the years: when co-optation and crumbs fail to buy peace, as in the period following the murder by Providence police of a black off-duty officer last winter, he simply severs contact and writes off the black vote. Cooperation between various factions of Irish, English, and Italian ethnic politicians has created a solidly white political establishment at the state level as well, with more interest in creating personal wealth and appeasing the suburbs than dealing with messy "urban" issues of social or economic justice.

Providence is about half people of color. More than 25 percent of the city’s population is Latino, about half of whom are immigrants from the Dominican Republic. They’re joined by Puerto Ricans, South Americans, and an emerging population of Mexicans. Like the Cape Verdeans who immigrated to Rhode Island in huge numbers throughout the first half of the century, and like most other Caribbeans, Dominicans are part of the African Diaspora. African slaves, a few indigenous survivors, and European colonizers created a population that has as many degrees of oppression as it does skin tones.

In Providence, African Americans make up another 15 percent of the population. With about six percent share of the city population (and growing), Asians have not yet emerged as a potent force in the political scene. Due in part to the search for decent housing, a sort of reverse colonization process has taken place, with the result that not one working-class neighborhood in Providence remains predominantly white. Councilman John Igliozzi, whose family thinks they own the working-class Silver Lake neighborhood, recently lamented that not enough white people are moving into his ward.

The Latino Challenge

Despite the spread of Latinos throughout the city, all but one of the Latino candidates decided to try to unseat progressive black elected officials. The three races involving Latinos were focused in South Providence, which is still over 50 percent black and has been represented exclusively by black politicians for more than 20 years, and in the adjoining Elmwood and Reservoir Triangle neighborhoods, where white politicians have generally ruled despite a clear majority of people of color. South Providence has experienced a steady growth in Latino population, and the Latino presence in Elmwood has tripled in the last 10 years, while the black population has remained at 25 percent. Reservoir Triangle was mostly white until the residency rule for city workers was temporarily lifted in 1992, sending hundreds of white firefighters, clerks, and police officers stampeding to the suburbs as if they were escaping the seven plagues. Now Latinos and blacks together outnumber whites in the Triangle.

The September 2000 primary and the November general election were historic in terms of the number of Latino voters, but this high turnout had precedents. In 1994, Luis Aponte became the first Latino to run for City Council, and four years later he won. Anastasia Williams of Panama became the first Latina state representative in 1992, and in 1998, three Latinos ran for city or state office.

By election 2000, the other shoe dropped. At Sackett Street School, the city’s most heavily Latino polling place, lines reached down a flight of stairs and out to the street, while Dominican-owned taxi and shuttle services dropped off vanloads of voters in 15-minute intervals, and dozens of campaign volunteers swarmed the sidewalks. Poder 1110, the city’s most popular Latino radio station, pounded the airwaves all day, broadcasting live from the polls and exhorting listeners to get out and vote Latino.

In Elmwood, León Tejada, owner of an income tax service, beat Marsha Carpenter, a six-year incumbent black woman, for state representative by a mere 100 votes. A member of the political party currently in power in the Dominican Republic, the social democratic Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD), Tejada was more a symbol of that group’s emergence as local political power than a known entity in his own right. The PRD was instrumental in Tejada’s victory, helping him overcome the fact that he moved into the district only a month before the filing deadline and had the very public backing of Joseph Voccola, a lawyer and state representative out of a mob-infested suburb, who trashes South Providence.

In South Providence, a young Latino marketing consultant named Gonzalo Cuervo ran against the social justice flag-bearer, Joe Almeida, a freshman black representative and former police officer who bucked the House leadership and led a successful charge to pass a law for collection of racial profiling data in Rhode Island. Almeida beat Cuervo by just 26 votes. Cuervo, whose political leanings are as much a mystery as his decision to run, works for a restauranteur who has a strong relationship with the Mayor. The latter has urged Cuervo to make a run against South Providence’s militant black councilwoman Balbina Young. Nationalism got ugly at times in the Cuervo campaign–Gladys Gould, a Dominican who organizes with DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality), a multi-racial social justice community organization, spent the day hustling votes and working polls to support Joe Almeida, "because of his courageous fight on Driving While Black legislation. I know he makes a difference for all people of color." In response, Cuervo supporters screamed "traitor" in her face.

What Black Means

Almeida acknowledges that racism is a problem in getting blacks and Latinos together, and compares it to the privilege that lighter skin color carries within black communities. "Every Latino who ran is light- or white-skinned. What we have in common is that we come in shades, and we need to accept that within ourselves, as who we are." He explains that as people of color, "we’re more apt to run against ourselves than someone white," since there is a fear of taking on the power structure.

Gwen Andrade, an African American political and community activist, warns that racism has created a wedge between blacks and Latinos rather than forging a bond. After running for state senate in the Elmwood and Reservoir Triangle neighborhoods in 1992 and managing successful campaigns including her Puerto Rican husband’s bid for city council, she sees this election as a sign that many Latinos will respond to racism by more readily aligning with whites. This is especially frustrating because the Caribbeans who make up the vast majority of Providence’s Latino population share not only African roots but also a history of slavery and brutal oppression with North American blacks.

"In America the further away from `black’ you get, the better," says Andrade. "That’s the perception that’s been set up–it’s the historical perspective of any group of people that has African roots. If you’ve got that African heritage that comes out in the skin color, or in the hair, you’re fighting even harder to distance yourself from it because of what black means in this country." Or in this hemisphere, one could add.

The only local Latino candidate to challenge a white incumbent was Juan Pichardo, who lost a bid for state senate in Elmwood and Reservoir Triangle by less than 100 votes. Pichardo comes out of a new generation of Latino political operatives, having served as campaign manager for a young Dominican man who ran against Joe Almeida for state representative in 1998. His opponent this time was Bob Kells, a five-term white incumbent and current police captain with inconsistent positions ranging from progressive to fascist.

Pichardo tried to play the middle ground but alienated the black political establishment by failing to support Marsha Carpenter, the progressive black incumbent state representative from Elmwood. The PRD, on the other hand, was disappointed that Pichardo failed to give unequivocal support to Carpenter’s opponent, León Tejada. Of all the local Latino candidates, Pichardo came the closest to building a base of black supporters, and also drew heavily on his strong relationships with white progressives at Ocean State Action (an affiliate of US Action) and the Rhode Island Young Democrats.

Most of all, Pichardo’s race proved to be a test for RILPAC, the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee. Founded in 1998 by Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a respected activist and philanthropist, the organization reflects its founder’s solidly progressive politics and has a sizeable base of young Latino professionals. But RILPAC also plays the curious role of providing a "safe" space for white politicians of both major parties to get exposed to Latinos. The organization has raised eyebrows by endorsing black candidates, most recently by supporting Marsha Carpenter over León Tejada for state representative. In a reflection of internal struggle, RILPAC endorsed both Joe Almeida and his opponent Gonzalo Cuervo.

The Dominican Connection

If RILPAC has been up front in the political establishment’s eye, then surely the PRD has been the stronger player on the street. Having this year recaptured the presidency in the Dominican Republic for the first time in 14 years, the PRD is no stranger to building membership throughout the hemisphere. It was founded in 1939 by exiled leaders during the brutal, U.S.-backed dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, and soon had a strong leadership base in New York. In 1961, party members returned to the Dominican Republic and overthrew Trujillo’s regime.

One of the heroes in the resistance to the 1965 U.S. invasion that (not surprisingly) followed was the young Francisco Peña Gomez, who went on to become the party’s presidential candidate in 1996. He came in first, but lost the run-off when his opponent made an unholy alliance with Trujillo’s successor.

Tragically, Peña Gomez died of a brain tumor two years after the election, but his legacy remains crucial. He laid the groundwork for dual citizenship for Dominicans, ensuring that participation in the U.S. political process would not require someone to sacrifice her or his Dominican political identity. Understanding the potential force of colonized people within an imperial power, he argued on countless trips to New York that Dominican immigrants must become U.S. citizens, involve themselves in their local communities, and win elections.

Equally important to the emergence of racial justice perspectives in local politics is the fact that Peña Gomez was black. Not mestizo, ni mulatto, ni any shade of brown, but dark black. In a country ravaged by racist imperialism, his leadership and expected victory represented a major accomplishment.

Locally, the PRD has built effective electoral operations but comes up short on multi-racial coalition. However, if the PRD is to reach its goal of expanded citywide and eventually statewide influence, it will require a broader base. Providence PRD President Rhadames Duran declares, "We believe it’s necessary to work for the community as a whole. By uniting as minorities, as soon as we get ourselves organized politically, we can reduce the impact of racism." While the PRD’s only major support went to Tejada, Duran claims that the party will be prepared to support any candidate who conforms to its mission.

In Providence’s fall elections, concrete discussion of the values and policies that might promote racial justice was absent, but there may be nowhere to go but forward. Joe Almeida, for one, sees some black/Latino unity in the future, and suggests that leadership in that movement may come from today’s multi-racial babies who embody both cultures. RILPAC spokespeople have been explicitly describing the links between Latino interests and those of other "urban" communities in public forums. Rhadames Duran speaks of redoubling the PRD’s work, so that within six years there will be a viable "minority" candidate for mayor representing a unified front of Latinos, African Americans, and Asians.

As for the possibilities for creating a unified racial justice agenda, Gladys Gould of DARE says, "We’re all in the same boat in terms of the struggle. Right now, the Latino community has the idea that the vote is a weapon, but they don’t know how to aim it. Carrying a gun doesn’t make me powerful–it’s how I use that gun that makes me powerful."