Last month, a small but vocal group of black Los Angeles community activists turned up at City Hall to blast Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other Latino elected officials for their tight-lipped silence about the federal crackdown on 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 pointing at Latino leaders for not speaking out.
In the past two years, some Latino leaders pointed the blame finger at blacks when Latino men were robbed, beaten and even murdered in Plainfield, N.J., Jacksonville, Fla., and Annapolis, Md., and when seven members of a Latino family were murdered in Indianapolis. The attackers in all cases were young black males. Latinos complained bitterly that blacks targeted Latinos because they were Latinos.
Violence between Latinos and blacks 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 by shocking headlines of hate crimes, campus brawls, prison and jail fights, 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 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, many blacks dread being bypassed in the eternal battle against poverty and discrimination and routinely voice their concern in private conversations and occasional public outbursts.
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 policymakers 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 1994 battle over Proposition 187 in California. California voters approved the measure, which denied public services to illegal immigrants, by a huge margin. By a thin majority, blacks 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. Democrat presidential contenders are courting Latinos like mad. The big fear of many blacks is that the national chase for Latino votes will erode the political gains and power they have won through decades of struggle.
Fear has also spilled into the schools. 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.
Then there's the problem of ethnic insensitivity: Many Latinos fail to understand the complexity and severity of the black experience. 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 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 for school improvements and increased neighborhood services and to combat police abuse, crime and violence. 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.
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, 2007, $19.95).
I can't thank Dr. Earl Hutchinson enough for writing this. I have been tempted to try to write it myself several times so that we Mississippians could finally see and understand the frictions occurring here. He pinpointed the reasons for my near silence on the matter. As oppressed people ourselves we don't want to see others oppressed. Yet I have witnesses much of the hate and lack of sensitivity and respect many Latinos have toward us and vice versa. My law school comprised 30% latino, 29% whites, 1% others, and 40% percent blacks. Living in Houston for 12 years with a very diverse population also opened my eyes greatly with respect to the friction existing between blacks and latinos. This friction is not limited to the United States either. You can find it wherever both groups exist.
The LA Gang Wars are a terrible thing. Neither side is going to resist fighting back. I want to see both groups get along well and to find a way to co-exist peacefully, but I'm not going to foolishly accept the notions that all or most are our allies or friends. They shouldn't assume the same about us either.
- Ray Carter
I've been pointing this out for years, Ray. The black-brown alliances that Tavis Smiley and others have been working for will be difficult to maintain because Latinos don't see our issues as their issues, and as their numbers now exceed our own there will continue to be friction in this regard. I've developed a cynical view that blacks will be used and then abandoned by the Latino community in their rise for power and acceptance. I've seen it happen in southern California thru limited time spent with my uncle.
- Jeff Lucas
I understand what you're saying, Jeff. I finally visited Miami 2 years ago and couldn't wait to watch and appraise the situation. We black folks can never forget about our personal or unique situation in the world. Lots of people think they're automatically better than we are because they're not us or don't have our shin color. I embrace interacting with other people for a multitude of reasons, one of which is to watch and study how they receive and treat me. Whether I accept and trust them are determined by this. I have sense enough to know different people have different customs and methods or modes of greeting and socializing, so I will give most the benefit of most doubt for a period of time before settling on a firm opinion.
- Ray Carter
Ebony and mahogany,
Let's live together in perfect harmony...
Okay, that's corny, so I'll stop now. Anyway, I have felt that the increase in the Latino population would make blacks feel that whatever little there is that they could obtain would be taken away from them. Feels like rats fighting over that last piece of cheese... I think that if both sides could find a way to work together to pull each other up, we'll all come out better in the end.
I wonder if there is a theory about sharing bootstraps.