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Gotta give Florida's racist book-banning credit: it promotes hemispheric integration

FILE - Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates is seen in Tampa, Fla., March 3, 1963. Fifty years after his death, Clemente, the skillful outfielder, remains one of the most revered figures in Puerto Rico and Latin America. His graceful flare and powerful arm were unrivaled in his era, but his humanitarian efforts are perhaps his greatest legacy. Half a century after he played, many of today’s Latino baseball players credit him for paving the way. (AP Photo/Preston Stroup, File)
Preston Stroup
Legendary Latino. Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates is seen in Tampa, Fla., March 3, 1963. A biography of Clemente has been removed from school libraries in Duval County, Fla.

COMMENTARY: The removal of books on Black Latinos in Florida public schools shows Latin America we share its racism — and its denial of the existence of racism.

A lot of folks are up in arms this week over the news that Duval County, Florida, has for now removed 176 books from its public school shelves.

But their short-term whine is ignoring the long-term win. They just don’t see that this could do as much if not more than any hemispheric free trade agreement to bring America and Latin America closer — by showing us how much shameless racist denialism we have in common.

Duval fears the books it’s quarantining, like ebola-infected bats, might run afoul of new state laws. Those measures essentially censor classroom material that doesn’t adhere to the white, Christian, heterosexual image of America in MAGAland’s department store windows. Like, say, instructive, inspiring stories of people who’ve overcome racism in America — radical stuff that might “indoctrinate” defenseless white, Christian, heterosexual children into hating themselves.

The two most talked-about volumes are picture-book biographies of Black Latinos — Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates by Jonah Winter, and Celia Cruz: Queen of Salsa by Veronica Chambers. And that’s why the possibilities for strengthened hemispheric integration — for enhanced inter-American understanding — are so promising in this instance, amigos!

By keeping kids here from reading about two of our country’s most stellar figures from Latin America and the Caribbean, and their struggles against prejudice, we’re demonstrating to folks in that region that we too practice — we get — the same incorrigible brand of racism they indulge, and the same refusal to admit the existence of that racism.

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That, after all, is what the review of the Clemente and Cruz books is all about. Their ilk most disturbs Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the MAGA voters he’s romancing, because they include historical references to the bigotry even star Black athletes and singers have endured in this country, especially in the 1950s and ‘60s when Clemente and Cruz took the stage.

Here, for example, is the passage in the bio of Clemente, a Puerto Rico native, that the Free State of Florida fears could brainwash young minds into following Critical Race Theory:

“As much as fans loved him, the newspaper writers did not…They mocked his Spanish accent, and when Roberto got angry, the mainly white newsmen called him a Latino 'hothead.' Roberto swore he would be so good, he would have to get the respect he deserved.

Our subtropical peninsula is a pipeline reaching out to Latin America, siphoning not only its admirable features but its toxic traits, including its own racial injustices — and dismissal of them.

Fifth-graders who read that aren’t exactly going to storm out and start race riots at recess. And there’s nothing inaccurate there. Though Clemente led the Pirates to two World Series championships, many white sportswriters did treat him like Latinophobic jerks. Their behavior was all the jerkier given Clemente’s legendarily humanitarian efforts to help people like the Nicaraguan earthquake victims he died ferrying aid to in 1972.


As Winter told me this week, “The idea that the good and decent book I wrote about a good and decent man will somehow ‘indoctrinate’ white kids into feeling ‘bad’ about being white is…obscene.”

“And,” he added, “it makes the role-model needs of schoolchildren of color look irrelevant.”

Of course it is. Of course it does. But, I told Winter, who lives in Pennsylvania, he needs to put himself in Florida. Our subtropical peninsula is a pipeline reaching out to Latin America, siphoning not only its admirable features but its toxic traits, too, including its own retro racial injustices — and dismissal of them.

Cruz, a Cuba native who came to the U.S. in 1961 and died in 2003, was a beloved musical icon to Cuban-Americans. But she too faced cruel racism in this country. And if truth be told, a lot of white Cubans in Miami who might have been avid fans probably wouldn’t have been such enthusiastic neighbors if she or any other Black Cuban had moved in next door.

Yet if you bring up that inconvenient reality in Coral Gables or Little Havana or Westchester, many locals will still shout you down. The communists who run Cuba today will also reject the truthful observation that racism is still a problem there. The same would happen if you pointed out the all too obvious racism in Mexico or Colombia or especially Brazil.

Racist denialism is in this hemisphere’s DNA. All Duval County is doing is embracing a gene that brings the Americas together.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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