The last few months have given the U.S. plenty of opportunities to think on racism, both current and historical. A slew of racially motivated murders by the police continue to make headlines. The 150th anniversary of Appomattox has just passed, renewing memories of Emancipation and the failure of Reconstruction. And for about the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama actually seems to be addressing racial issues. Events like these revive old debates, never really forgotten, and rekindle the perennial hope of possible solutions. They remind us that we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the evils inherent in our society and in our history.
Argentina, on the other hand, does.
In terms of race, their history differs little from our own. Just as the U.S. pushed American Indians off of good land from the Hudson to the Colorado, Argentina carved its modern breadbasket out of the Patagonian tribes in the vicious conquista del desierto. Just as prominent Americans – Walt Disney, Charles Lindbergh – embarrassed themselves by their love of Nazis, Argentines shamefully sheltered hundreds of Hitler’s worst war criminals, Joseph Mengele and Adolf Eichmann among them. And just as America has benefitted hugely from a Peculiar Institution, Argentina’s early years saw tens of thousands of slaves sold within its ports.
But while the U.S. stills grapples with the continuing ramifications of having once embraced chattel slavery, Argentina can comfortably ignore that aspect of its history. Its black people have totally disappeared.
How? A complex interplay of forces. Some have emphasized the high mortality and desertion rates of black soldiers in Argentina’s frontier wars. Others argue that they were drowned by a flood of white immigrants – that the government, through strict racial immigration quotas largely unchanged today, ensured that the European Argentine would absorb the African. It’s clear that, whatever the case, the shift to whiteness was heavily encouraged by the government, acting on then-popular theories of white supremacy. The policy was successful; Afro-Argentines had vanished from their nation by the beginning of the twentieth century.
Today, Argentina considers itself 97% white. (That means that, proportionately, more white people live in Argentina than live in Germany, France, or Vermont.) Argentines defend this percentage vigorously. They defend it when they quizzically ask dark-skinned tourists and visitors, “Where are you from?” as you surely aren’t Argentine. They defend when they say, “There is no racism in Argentina,” as a country of only one race cannot be racist. They defend it when their president says, “Black people do not exist in Argentina, Brazil has that problem,” as black people have never been there.
In their nineteenth-century rush to become a “white” nation – something that many Argentines still feel they alone, in South America, can boast – the nation, by necessity, paved over its black history. The slaves who provided the labor and craftsmanship to build the early economy are forgotten. The African roots of the tango and payada, signature Argentinian cultural exports, are ignored. Strangest of all, modern Argentines’ own black ancestors – those who interbred, dispersing their genes into the whitening population, and now account for the secret black blood still flowing in the veins of millions – are erased.
Argentina is a mixed nation. But like Israel, peopled by Ashkenazim and Mizrahim alike, or like Japan, where the Ainu and Dowa desperately try to assimilate, Argentina will never admit to it. Their black heritage remains unknown. So, too does the black part of their national soul. They have succeeded where Germany failed.