While the last few years have seen important advances in Afro-Latino visibility, mainstream US culture is still awkwardly wrapping its mind around the fact that someone can identify as both black and Latino. The latest battleground for this binary shattering dual identity seems to be the Congressional Black Caucus, where New York City’s newly minted, Dominican-born congressman Adriano Espaillat is making overtures.
Only a month into his new job, the former New York state assemblyman has already joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and while he has made no formal petition to join the CBC, he has been clear about his interest. Technically the CBC’s bylaws limit membership exclusively to African-American congressmen, and in the past they have denied membership to white congressmen representing majority African-American districts. But Espaillat’s position as a self-identified “Latino of African descent” has presented quite the conundrum for caucus members.
This is further complicated by the fact that Espaillat was long a thorn in the side of CBC founder Charles Rangel – himself half-Puerto Rican – who retired from congress this year after 46 years representing upper Manhattan. With insurgent primary campaigns in 2012 and 2014, Espaillat earned the scorn of CBC members after his efforts hit hard on questions surrounding the Rangel’s ethics.
That, of course, shouldn’t have any bearing on Espaillat’s eligibility, but there are also more sincere concerns coming from members of the Caucus as they weigh his membership. Former chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) made clear his own considerations in a statement to Politico: “Even though our agendas are typically parallel, occasionally they are not. So it may be problematic if someone wants to belong to two ethnic caucuses.”
Indeed, while “black” speaks to a broader racial identity, “African-American” often implies a cohesive community with a shared historical experience within the United States – one whose immediate political interests may not always align with those of a large, Spanish-speaking immigrant group. So as the CBC mulls over the admission of Espaillat, it seems they will have to confront a definition of shared political identity that wrestles with sticky questions of race, ethnicity, culture, and history. Stay tuned for the fallout.