Researcher’s Book Explores Latinos’ Contributions to 1970s Civil Rights Advancements

By Tom McLaughlin

Over the course of Lorrin Thomas’ research for two previous books – on Puerto Rican citizenship and civil rights struggles in the United States – she noted the paucity of historical scholarship on Latinos’ political engagement in the years following the social movements of the late 1960s. Her latest book now seeks to fill that gap.

Thomas, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University–Camden, is currently working on her ambitious book, Minority: Latinos and the Making of Multiracial America after the 1960s, funded by a $60,000 research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“My book project is a reassessment of this period that I call the coda of the civil rights movement, and it’s an effort to complicate the standard historical narratives in our country, to show how the dynamics of racism and rights in many parts of the United States go beyond black and white,” says Thomas. “The real impact of the major changes that took shape in American society during the 1970s cannot be understood without expanding this national story to incorporate Latinos as central historical actors.”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher explains that, while it is true that the central story of racism in the United States begins with the enslavement of Black people and their continued unfreedom in the more than 150 years since emancipation, the history of racism and rights has played out very differently in various regions of the country. In much of the West, she says, the history of violence and discrimination against Latinos is the most prominent racial problem since the 19th century.

“I hope this book will help people understand how the meaning of ‘minority’ status – and the ways that people identified as ‘minorities’ fought against the burdens of that status – varied tremendously depending on whether we’re looking at racial politics in New York, Chicago, Miami, Houston, or Los Angeles,” says Thomas. “Those are the cities from which the book’s case studies will be drawn.”

Lorrin Thomas

Minority will thus explore Latinos’ centrality to the struggles over law and policy that reconfigured American society after the 1960s. The book will demonstrate that Latino activism and leadership contributed substantially to the outcome of major domestic conflicts and debates during the long decade of the 1970s. These battles include school desegregation and busing, political redistricting, affirmative action in employment, and access to higher education, as well as ongoing protests against police brutality and disagreements over the causes of growing urban poverty.

Thomas adds that, for several reasons, the lack of focus on Latino participation in the current protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death is not the same kind of overshadowing of Latino political participation that happened in many of the stories of civil rights struggles during the 1970s. First and foremost, she explains, the current focus is the murder of Black people by police because that is the central issue, both statistically and politically.

“Certainly, Latino people have suffered from discrimination by police, including violence and killings, as long as they have lived in the United States, but not to the same degree as Black people,” she says.

Furthermore, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, there is important regional variation to the current protests. Latino groups in Chicago, especially people who identify as Afro-Latino, have participated more visibly and actively in these protests than Latino groups in Miami. Latino communities in Miami, she explains, have historically been dominated politically by a conservative Cuban American leadership that more often identifies as white.

“Latino activists have been having important conversations about the power of racial prejudice within their own communities, and about how to participate effectively in a movement that is about police abuse and racial violence that certainly affect Latino communities,” she says. “Those conversations were then galvanized in the wake of the George Floyd killing.”

Thomas ultimately hopes that her book will shed light on the interconnections among disparate rights struggles and that seeing those interconnections will help push our national historical narratives in more integrative directions.

“My goal is to tell a story that will be compelling and useful to people within and beyond the academy,” she says. “For general readers, as well as fellow scholars and students, I hope to present a serious but accessible narrative that offers new ways to think about the civil rights revolution that created new political dialogues within Latino communities and across racial groups throughout the 1970s.”

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