December 6, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 17
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Rising Latino numbers, rising black fears

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A small but vocal group of Los Angeles black community activists turned up at City Hall in October to blast Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Latino elected officials for their tight-lipped 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-pointing at Latino leaders for not speaking out on the violence.

In the past two years, some Latino leaders have pointed the same blame finger at blacks when Latino men were robbed, beaten and even murdered in Plainfield, N.J., Jacksonville, Fla., and Annapolis, Md., 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 simply 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: Racial and ethnic conflicts can occur 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, 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 for one another, sharing a passionate belief 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 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. 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.

The prime reasons for chronic black unemployment, however, are lingering racial discrimination and 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 Democratic 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.

But the high percentage of minorities in L.A. schools 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 country’s 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 isn’t there, the problem is quickly reduced to ethnic squabbling over the scant dollars.

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, the state of black and brown relations is not all gloom and doom. Blacks and Latinos have worked together in some communities to combat police abuse, crime and violence, and to advocate 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 a syndicated columnist, author, political analyst and social issues commentator.

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