Rumors of racial hatred swirled around the small farm town of Tifton, Ga., last fall after four blacks were arrested in the deadly robberies of six Mexican immigrants. In a single night at different trailer parks, the men were shot and beaten to death with a baseball bat as they slept.
Community leaders—the white police chief, the Hispanic priest of the Roman Catholic church, the local president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—quickly stepped in to maintain peace. They called these crimes of opportunity, saying that theft, not racism, was behind them. Still, they conceded that the community is far from integrated.
“We’ve just never been friends and buddies,” said Isabella Brooks, the president of the NAACP in Colquitt County, near Tifton. She said she has no white neighbors and doesn’t socialize with the Hispanics up the street because of the language barrier.
The nation’s two largest minorities are sorting out whether their relations will be driven by competition and mistrust or a common bond, a joint effort to close persistent gaps between whites and minorities. In no region is the tension clearer than in the South.
“The Hispanic presence changes the dynamic of the South, which has always been viewed as white and black,” said William Ferris of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina.
Advocacy groups, including the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, argue that Hispanics, especially immigrants struggling for legislative reform, find the perfect ally and model in blacks and their history of fighting for equal rights.
Hispanics have passed blacks as the largest U.S. minority group at 14.5 percent of the population compared with blacks at 12.1 percent, according to the Census Bureau. (It counts Hispanics as people of any race whose ethnic background is in Spanish-speaking countries.)
Though blacks are still more numerous in the Southeast, except for Florida, a rush of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries is changing racial interaction across the region. Several Southern states lead the nation in the growth of Hispanic residents and illegal immigrants.