Saturday, November 24, 2007

Rising Latino Numbers, Rising Black Fears
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Last month a small but vocal group of Los Angeles black community activists turned up at City Hall to blast Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Latino elected officials for their tight lip silence when the feds cracked down on the terrorist Latino street gang, Florencia 13. The gang’s arsenal of mayhem included murders, assaults and intimidation against blacks in South L.A. Though the protestors were few in number many blacks privately cheered their finger point at Latino leaders for not speaking out on the violence.

In the past two years some Latino leaders have also pointed the same blame finger at blacks when Latino men were robbed, beaten and even murdered in Plainfield, New Jersey, Jacksonville, Florida, and in Annapolis, Maryland, and seven members of a Latino family were murdered in Indianapolis. The attackers in all cases were young black males. Latinos complained bitterly that blacks were targeting Latinos because they were Latinos.

Latino and black violence against each other is another tormenting sign of the worst kept secret in race relations in America. Race and ethnic conflicts can be just as easily between blacks and Latinos as between blacks and whites. In recent years, black and Latino relations have been characterized more by shocking headlines of hate crimes, campus brawls, prison and jail fights, the anti-immigration marches, job discrimination claims, and racial slurs and taunts against one another.

The black and brown clash draws attention, and lots of it, because it involves two groups that some think should be natural allies. At least that’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez thought four decades ago. They had a mutual admiration society for each other and passionately believed that blacks and Latinos were equally oppressed minorities and should march in lockstep to do battle against racial injustice and poverty. Radical black and Latino activist groups briefly took up their call for black and brown unity.

Their rhapsodic notion of black and brown harmony is now the faintest of faint memories. Three years ago when the Census Bureau proclaimed Latinos the top minority in the U.S., many blacks loudly grumbled that they would be shoved even further to the margin among minorities. The grumbles rose to a near-shrill pitch during the immigration debate among many blacks. Most civil rights leaders and black Democrats publicly embraced the immigrants' rights struggle as a crucial and compelling civil rights fight. Yet, the dread many blacks feel about being bypassed in the eternal battle against poverty and discrimination can be felt and is routinely heard in private conversations and occasional public outbursts by many African-Americans.

Long before the Latino population surge, Latino political activists demanded that racial issues no longer be framed solely in black and white. Their aim was to get policy makers to pay more attention to the problems of the staggeringly high poverty rate, job discrimination, failing public schools, racial typecasting and violence that slam Latinos. The irony is that these are the issues that have caused the sharpest conflict between blacks and Latinos.

The first warning that many blacks felt threatened by soaring Latino numbers was the battle over Proposition 187 in California in 1994. California voters approved the measure, which denied public services to illegal immigrants, by a huge margin. Blacks by a thin majority also backed the measure. They were mortally afraid that Latinos would bump poor blacks from low skilled jobs, and further marginalize them by increasing joblessness and fueling the crime and drug crisis in black neighborhoods.

The prime reason for chronic black unemployment, however, is lingering racial discrimination, the lack of job skills, training, and education. No matter, many blacks still blame their job plight on illegal immigrants.

Racial fear has spilled into politics. Latinos are being courted like mad by the Democrat presidential contenders. The big fear of many blacks is that the national chase for Latino votes will erode the newfound political gains and power they have won through decades of struggle.

Fear has also spilled into the schools. The pitched battle between black and Latino members of an LAUSD advisory board over whether their meetings should be conducted in English or Spanish is another sign of racial jitters. Many blacks feel they are getting the short end of the stick educational in a school district where Latinos make up more than seventy percent of the students. But the high percentage of minorities in the schools in L.A. is not unique.

Latinos and blacks make up the majority of students in many of the nation's big city schools. Their schools are also among the poorest, and most segregated. In their desperation to get a quality education for their kids, Latinos and blacks accuse each other of gobbling up scarce resources, dragging down test scores, and fueling the rise in crime and gang problems at the schools. The answer is to press school officials for more funding, better teachers, and quality learning materials. However, when the money is not there, the problem quickly is reduced to ethnic squabbling over the scarce dollars.

The race tinged violence among blacks and Latinos that drove the black activists to L.A. City Hall to hammer Latino elected officials for their silence is not the norm—at least yet. The overwhelming majority of physical assaults and murders of blacks are by blacks and most attacks on Latinos are by Latinos. But, black and Latino racial attacks against each other, no matter how infrequent, as is the case with white on black hate attacks, stir fear, rage, and panic, and deepen racial divisions. That’s especially true given the hostility many blacks express toward illegal immigration.

Then there's the problem of ethnic insensitivity. Many Latinos fail to understand the complexity and severity of the black experience. They frequently bash blacks for their poverty and goad them to pull themselves up as other immigrants have done. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox took much heat from black leaders in 2005 when he claimed that Mexican immigrants would work jobs blacks wouldn’t. Some Latinos repeat the same vicious anti-black epithets as racist whites.

Ethnic insensitivity, however, cuts both ways. Many blacks have little understanding of the impoverishment and social turmoil that has driven many Latinos to seek jobs and refuge in the United States. Once here, they face the massive problems of readjusting to a strange culture, customs, and language, and that includes discrimination too.

Despite the problems black and brown relations is not total gloom and doom. Blacks and Latinos have worked together in some communities to combat police abuse, crime and violence, for school improvements, and increased neighborhood services. Still the painful truth is that blacks and Latinos have found that the struggle for power and recognition is long and difficult. On some issues they can be allies on others they will go it alone. Toppling blacks from the top minority spot in America won't make the problems blacks and Latinos face disappear. Nor will blaming each other for those problems solve them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press)