John Pomfret, Washington Post, Feb. 21, 2006
LOS ANGELES—A series of deadly racial attacks in the jails of this sprawling metropolis has cast a spotlight on long-simmering but little-discussed tensions between a shrinking black community and an ascendant Latino one in California.
In almost every arena of public life—schools, politics, hospitals, housing and the workplace—African Americans and Hispanics are engaged in an edgy competition, according to interviews with teachers, students, politicians, researchers, government officials, civil rights lawyers, street cops and business people.
Los Angeles’s first Latino mayor since the 19th century, Antonio Villaraigosa, was elected last year with strong support from African Americans amid hopes of the creation of a true rainbow coalition in one of the world’s most ethnically diverse metropolitan areas. But the reality, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an African American radio talk show host who directs the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, is that “the jail violence is only symptomatic of something larger. There is conflict and competition in all areas. This city and this state is a caldron of racial issues. This thing is pulsating.”
Fighting broke out at the Pitchess Detention Center on the northern fringes of Los Angeles County two weeks ago when a group of Latino inmates in a two-tiered dormitory began throwing furniture down on a group of black inmates, leaving one of them dead. In the ensuing days, scores more were injured in a string of clashes between Latinos and blacks at Pitchess and other jails. Last Sunday, a second African American was killed in a jail brawl.
Vaca, Hutchinson and others predict the competition and tension in Los Angeles highlight a nationwide issue between the two groups. Last year, after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin complained of Mexicans overrunning his city and displacing blacks—a sentiment recently repeated by Jesse L. Jackson in an interview on CNN.
Large swaths of Los Angeles, such as Watts, a place that Earl Paysinger, the deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department described as an “ecosystem for African American culture,” are now increasingly Hispanic. The nearby city of Compton, the birthplace of gangsta rap, is now 60 percent Latino. “The movement of Latinos into these communities has been nothing less than a demographic earthquake,” Paysinger said.
Schools that for more than a decade had been predominantly black are now predominantly Latino and that shift has led to racial strife. In 2005, widespread fighting between Latinos and African Americans, sometimes necessitating lockdowns and the deployment of police officers, rocked 12 schools in Los Angeles County, said Marshall Wong, of the county’s Commission on Human Relations.
Channa Cook, a teacher at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, said that even in her school, routinely regarded as one of the best in Los Angeles County, African American students each year skip school on May 5, the day when Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, a 19th-century military victory over France. Mexican gangs have warned in graffiti that they will shoot blacks attending school that day.
“My first year here, I didn’t believe it, but the students told me, ‘No, Miss Cook, if you come to school you’re going to get shot,’” said Cook who is African American. “When I arrived at class, all the black kids had stayed home.”
Hate crimes experts also point to a worrying trend among the two communities in Los Angeles County. Unlike in the past when whites were involved in the lion’s share of hate crimes, now, in anti-black hate crimes, 73 percent of the identified suspects are Latino and in anti-Latino crimes, 80 percent of the suspects are African American, according to a report by the county Commission on Human Relations.
“The old paradigm of black-white race relations is falling by the wayside,” Vaca said.
Tony Rafael, a gang expert who is writing a book on the Mexican Mafia, said so far the Latinos are winning.
“Obviously it goes both ways, but the hammer is much bigger on the Latino side,” Rafael said. “Blacks are outnumbered. And they can’t seem to create a united front to resist.”