WASHINGTON—There is a deja vu quality to the nation’s post-Katrina interest in race and poverty. It brings to mind the call-to-conscience of the Kerner Commission, named by President Johnson in the wake of the urban riots of the 1960s, and its warning of an America “moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
But of course, America is not black and white anymore, thanks to another legacy of that era—the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, which Johnson signed into law Oct. 3, 1965. Infused with the civil rights spirit of the day, Hart-Cellar eliminated national origin quotas designed to keep the United States a mostly Northern European nation, ushering in an era of mass immigration, mostly from Latin America and Asia. It would transform America’s racial and ethnic makeup more than any legislation in history.
Forty years later, whites are a diminished majority in a far more diverse nation, but still comprise more than two-thirds of its population and a commanding share of its wealth and power.
Blacks, meanwhile, have lost their standing as the dominant minority group, effectively ceding their singular claim on the national conscience, their grievances undermined by the competing demands and relative success of many immigrants of color.
“People are becoming aware that you can’t talk about black and white anymore,” said Gerald Jaynes, professor of economics and African-American studies at Yale University. In 1989, Jaynes co-edited “A Common Destiny,” in its time the definitive study of blacks in American society. By 2000, he was editing another volume, “Immigration and Race.”
In 1960, blacks accounted for 69 percent of the U.S. minority population.
By 2004, according to Census Bureau estimates, blacks were only 39 percent of the minority population. Hispanics became the largest minority in 2001.
In his book, Vaca describes the demographic wave overtaking black America as “the Latino tsunami” that will forever alter the arithmetic of minority politics. The new axioms of power, he writes, are that Latinos outnumber blacks, that they will compete for jobs and resources, that Latinos have their own history of oppression, and, most pointedly, that “because Latinos are not responsible for the plight of African-Americans, they come to the table with a clear conscience.”
From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, black appeals to conscience and white guilt have proved indispensible to progress. But, as time passes and America’s complexion changes, those appeals lose traction.
In the Sept. 25 Los Angeles Times, contributing editor Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote a piece headlined, “La Nueva Orleans: Latino immigrants, many of them here illegally, will rebuild the Gulf Coast—and stay there.”
Already, he said, Washington was greasing the skids by suspending the Davis-Bacon Act that would have required government contractors rebuilding the Gulf to pay prevailing wages, and by suspending sanctions against employers who hire immigrant victims of Katrina who cannot prove their legal status.
New Orleans will be rebuilt, Rodriguez predicted, and, in its new makeup, “look like Los Angeles.”
Hyperbolic, perhaps, but the pattern is plain to Hutchinson. “The vibrant new ethnic group in America are Hispanics,” he said, while the interests of African-Americans “are falling by the wayside.”