Hispanics, blacks find futures entangled Immigration

Hispanics, blacks find futures entangled Immigration

By Martin Kasindorf and Maria Puente, USA TODAY
[This article appeared in the September 10, 1999 issue of USA Today and is reprinted with permission.]

September 10, 1999

COMPTON, Calif. – California Assemblyman Carl Washington is an African-American who represents ghettos that are turning into barrios. That makes him a nervous member of an endangered political species.

Washington’s district embraces Compton and other low-income southern suburbs of Los Angeles. The area’s population has been evolving since the 1980s from mostly African-American to mostly Hispanic, as immigrants from Mexico and Central America have found cheap housing there.

South Los Angeles’ Hispanics are acquiring U.S. citizenship, or are being born into it, in increasing numbers. If these power-conscious new citizens elect politicians from their own ranks, the Latino tide could wash away the four-member black caucus in the 80-member state Assembly, the two blacks in the 40-seat state Senate, the three blacks on Los Angeles’ 15-member City Council and the four California blacks entrenched in Congress.

“Black empowerment has been so brief – in California, 20 years or less,” Regina Freer, an African-American professor of politics at Los Angeles’ Occidental College, says wistfully. Among black politicians, she says, “I think there is depression.”

Building bridges

Washington is one incumbent who won’t go quietly. He’s busily building bridges with Latino voters, who will outnumber African-American voters in his district within five years.

“The African-American officials we have around the country didn’t get elected by being stupid,” Washington says. “We have to be in a position where we are coalition builders. Latinos have the numbers. It has to be clear in everyone’s mind that Carl Washington is the assemblyman for the entire district.”

Will Latinos find common cause with Washington or reject him? For American society, not just for politicians, an unresolved question for the 21st century is whether the future of Latino-black relations will be marked by coalition or by conflict.

With Latinos due to surpass blacks as the nation’s largest minority group by 2005, the two groups could be in for an uncomfortable period of jostling over primacy, particularly in California, Texas and New York, where large numbers of Latinos and blacks live side by side.

“As the Hispanic population grows, as it remembers the predominant place in the racial dialogue blacks traditionally held and remembers its feelings of exclusion, it’s going to be hard for them to modulate their feelings of potency from numbers,” veteran black civil rights leader Roger Wilkins says. “That’s going to cause real stress with blacks.”

Already, frictions sporadically flame into turf wars over jobs, schools, housing and other issues:

Dallas School Board meetings during the 1997-98 school year degenerated into near-brawls between Hispanics and blacks over filling the post of school superintendent. The warring factions recently settled on

Bill Rojas, a black man of Puerto Rican descent. People on both sides say tension over controlling the schools is still just below the surface. Blacks hold more teaching and administrative jobs than Hispanics, though the student count is 50.3% Latino, 39% black.

In Miami, ethnic appeals and bitterness marred the 1996 campaign for Miami-Dade County’s newly created “strong mayor.” The young favorite of Cuban-Americans, Alex Penelas, handily beat Arthur Teele, a black Vietnam War hero. Cuban-Americans hold nearly all Miami political power, and resentments simmer. Many blacks believe the relative newcomers’ financial and political strides have been made at their expense.

In Chicago, Latino community groups sued in 1994 because the city’s housing authority was renting only 1.7% of public housing units to Latinos, who were 20% of the population, while it rented 95% of the apartments to blacks, who were 37% of the population. The suit was settled in 1995, but “the going has been slow” in improving the numbers, says Carlos de Jesus, executive director of Latinos United, a co-plaintiff in the suit. Now, 6% of public housing is Latino occupied.

Latinos’ representation in public housing still doesn’t begin to reflect their surging numbers in metropolitan Chicago. The 1990 Census counted 898,096 Latinos in the area. Claritas Inc., a marketing statistics firm based in Arlington, Va., estimates that the 1998 figure was 1,194,494, a 33% increase. By contrast, the black population was up by only an estimated 6.8%, from 1, 569,9l5 to l,676,018.

Trading barbs

Wherever the two groups clash, some African-Americans portray Hispanics as Juanito-come-latelies trying to ride on black civil rights victories without doing the hard democratic work of organizing and voting.

“The problem we have with them is that they think that because they have the majority in the school district or the city, that somehow entitles them to a leg up on other minorities,” says Lee Alcorn, president of the Dallas NAACP.

Adelfa Callejo, a Mexican-American lawyer involved in the Dallas school battles, matches Alcorn’s heated rhetoric. “Whatever blacks want, they get,” she says. “They lead by intimidation. They threaten to riot or boycott. People don’t feel threatened by us because we haven’t threatened to burn the city down.”

There are voices of compromise. California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the USA’s highest-ranking Hispanic in state government, cautions against a Latino winner-take-all mentality. In a January speech, he called on Latinos to help blacks keep legislative seats by voting for simpatico incumbents instead of “knee-jerking to a Latino.”

But in many inner cities, Latinos’ growing numbers make for racial intolerance rather than accommodation. Culture and language differences spark squabbles in schools. “What music do you play at the prom? Do you play salsa? Rap? Oldies?” asks James Johnson, a University of North Carolina business professor who formerly directed UCLA’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty.

Almost every February for 10 years, Inglewood High School in Inglewood, Calif., has coped with violence between Latinos and blacks. February is Black History Month. Latino teens resent black culture’s being recognized for a whole month, while they get only Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over French forces in 1864.

In February, Principal Lowell Winston, an African-American, canceled all ethnic celebrations.

Instead, he said, “Let’s talk about all cultures and contributions all the time.”

Among adults, friction rubs hardest over jobs. Unskilled black inner-city residents often accuse Latino immigrants of “taking our jobs.” Johnson says the reasons go beyond cliches about immigrants’ willingness to work for lower wages than the native-born.

Hispanics preferred?

Johnson led a mid-’90s UCLA study that showed employers strongly preferred to hire Hispanics and immigrants over African-Americans, particularly over black males. Employers think Hispanics win on “soft skills,” the intangibles of “look, dress, talk and this thing called attitude,” Johnson says.

If there is a microcosm of the challenges between Latinos and blacks, it is the section of Los Angeles County extending south from Los Angeles’ City Hall and embracing more than a dozen cities, including Compton. Outnumbered 5-to-1 by Latinos, who are 44% of the county’s population, blacks are moving away.

The black exodus can’t be entirely attributed to discomfort at neighborhood change, Johnson says. Many middle-class blacks are seeking housing bargains in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Job seekers are heading for booming Las Vegas. Retirees are going home to Deep South roots. That leaves the poorest African-Americans trying to adjust to Latino influence in changing neighborhoods. “I suspect there’s probably some relationship between the inability to move and the likelihood of feeling competition,” Freer says.

In Los Angeles’ Watts district, competition takes the form of chronic feuding between blacks and Latinos over staff hiring at the county-operated Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center.

The hospital was built in the late ’60s in response to blacks’ complaints that they were medically underserved, which was one cause of the 1965 Watts riots, an investigation concluded. Most of the hospital’s patients now are Hispanic, and Hispanics are demanding as many hospital jobs as blacks hold.

However, “at a neighborhood level, in everyday interactions, there are people who in practice are finding ways to peacefully coexist with each other,” says Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Rights Commission.

That even goes for youth gangs. Hicks says Latinos are now in the infamous Crips and Bloods, and blacks in the feared Latino 18th Street gang.

“In a twisted way, it’s a sign of progress,” Hicks says.

“These thugs are integrating themselves.”

The Los Angeles area “has the luxury of some time – time for people to think about ways to surmount tensions,” says Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University-Fullerton.

Hispanics in Los Angeles have a way to go, probably years, before a majority are citizens and voting on the same scale as blacks. Hicks says most black officeholders are probably safe until the city election in 2005.

Need for selflessness

Easing the transition, political analysts say, will be rising Latino politicians in the mold of California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, 46, and San Jose, Calif., Mayor Ron Gonzales, 48. They find common ground with blacks, Asians and whites through education-oriented agendas going beyond parochial Latino concerns.

Selflessness will be required to get African-Americans and Latinos past a time of competition, Wilkins says.

“My sense is that there’s going to have to be real, powerful efforts at statesmanship at the top,” he says. “It won’t work if people think we’ll have a couple of conferences and that will do it. This effort will have to go on for the next 50 years.”

Contributing: Deborah Sharp in Miami

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