The Economist, August 2, 2007
Two men will soon stand trial in Los Angeles in a murder case that does not involve white cops, a sportsman or a music producer. As a result, the trial is unlikely to receive minute-by-minute coverage on cable TV. Yet it will reveal as much about the edgy state of race relations in Los Angeles as the cases of Rodney King or O.J. Simpson. Perhaps more so, since it involves the two groups between which there is most tension. The accused men, Ernesto Alcarez and Jonathan Fajardo, are Hispanic. The victim, 14-year-old Cheryl Green—who, prosecutors say, died in a racially motivated attack—was black.
In the rarefied world of national politics (and in America’s even more other-worldly universities) blacks and Latinos tend to be lumped together in what Nicolás Vaca, a California lawyer, calls a “presumed alliance”. Last month Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate whose father was Kenyan, assured a Hispanic conference that such a bond existed. Quoting Martin Luther King, he called the two groups “brothers in the fight for equality”. On the streets of America’s cities, however, rather less lofty attitudes are apparent.
“We’re being overrun,” says Ted Hayes of Choose Black America, which has led anti-immigration marches in south-central Los Angeles. “The compañeros have taken all the housing. If you don’t speak Spanish they turn you down for jobs. Our children are jumped upon in the schools. They are trying to drive us out.” Not, Mr Hayes emphasises, that he has anything against illegal immigrants personally, or against Mexicans who are in America legally. Indeed, he says, in that useful old phrase, he is friendly with many of them.
Last year Pew, a pollster, found that one-third of blacks believe immigrants take jobs from Americans—more than any other group. Yet in some ways their views were benign. Blacks are less likely than whites or even Hispanics to believe that immigrants end up on welfare or commit crimes. Latinos, on the other hand, appear to make no such concessions. One survey of Durham, in North Carolina, found that 59% of Latinos believed few or almost no blacks were hard-working, and a similar proportion reckoned few or almost none could be trusted. Fewer than one in ten whites felt the same way.
Fifteen years ago such prejudices hardly existed in Durham, for the simple reason that there were hardly any Latinos. Like much of the South, the city was biracial, with roughly equal numbers of blacks and whites. Then came a building boom that drew workers from Mexico, many of them illegal. By 2000 one in 12 residents of Durham was Latino—up from one in 80 a decade earlier. By 2005, one in eight was. Mauricio Castro, a local activist, says the change has hit the city like a storm.
That storm has broken most heavily on the poorest parts of Durham, which happen to be black. It is in largely black neighbourhoods that wooden shacks have been converted into call centres and carnicerias (and it is, inevitably, often blacks who have robbed new arrivals of their weekly wages). In this, Durham is typical. By 2000 blacks in all ten of America’s biggest metropolitan areas were more mixed in with Hispanics than with whites. In Los Angeles, former ghettos such as Watts are now biracial.
In poor areas, closeness often means conflict. Los Angeles tallied more than 400 racial hate crimes last year—the most, as a proportion of all hate crimes, for at least a decade (see chart). Blacks fared worst: they comprise just 9% of the population of Los Angeles County but were the victims of 59% of all race-hate crimes. Seven times out of ten, their persecutors were Latino. Hispanics, who make up almost half the population, were victimised by blacks eight-tenths of the time. These numbers greatly understate the violence. They do not, for example, include the victims of a dozen interracial prison riots last year, which left two dead.
Gangs tend to be held responsible for such outrages, which is only partly fair. The 204th Street gang, which is alleged to be behind the murder of Cheryl Green, has a reputation for attacking innocent blacks. And gang members who have done time in California’s racially divided jails often develop especially sharp attitudes. Yet gangs often express broadly held views, though in a violent way. Besides, says Robin Toma, the head of the county’s human relations commission, gangs can affect the views of law-abiding folk. When bullets start flying, a turf war can easily turn into a broader racial conflict.
The powerless majority
One reason blacks and Latinos have failed to form an alliance is philosophical. The black civil-rights struggle, in the South at least, was mostly about asserting legal rights and demolishing barriers to voting by those who were, in theory, already enfranchised. The Latino struggle is quite different. Its goal is often the selective or non-enforcement of the law, particularly on immigration. A common demand, for example, is for local police not to co-operate with federal immigration agents. And, whereas blacks in the 1960s demanded power in proportion to their numbers as adult citizens, Hispanics want rather more.
Thanks partly to their youth and partly to the fact that many are not citizens, Latinos are not nearly as powerful as their numbers might suggest. In Durham, where they are more than 13% of the population, the Latino vote is negligible. Even in historically Hispanic California they comprise more than a third of the population but cast only about a fifth of the votes. The imbalance between numbers and power irks many Latinos. And since they increasingly live in areas where political power is held by blacks, it often sharpens racial resentments.
In Compton, an independent city in south Los Angeles, Latinos are now 58% of the population—and rising quickly. Yet the mayor and all the members of the council are black. “They got here first, took over from the whites, and now it’s difficult for them to let go,” says Alex Leon, a local pastor. Sensing the future tsunami of Latino political power, Compton’s mayor has begun to cultivate Hispanics. It may be too late. In the next-door city of Lynwood, Hispanics were largely kept out of power until they became a majority. After seizing control of the city council in 1997 they demolished the black political machine.
Such ethnic squabbles, which are almost inevitable in the zero-sum game of urban politics, can shape attitudes. And they may help to explain one of the most striking features of the 2008 presidential race: the lack of Latino support for Mr Obama. In June a Gallup poll showed that black Democrats were evenly divided between Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton, while whites gave Mrs Clinton a 16-point lead. Among Hispanics, however, the senator from New York led by a crushing 46 points—despite Mr Obama’s impeccably liberal line on immigration.
So far, rivalry between blacks and Hispanics has been a mostly working-class affair. But Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who is writing a book on black-Latino relations, reckons that is likely to change. Latinos are already so entrenched in some manual trades that it is hard to see how they can become more dominant. In construction, for example, they account for a quarter of the national workforce and outnumber blacks almost five to one. The next citadels to be stormed will be white-collar, largely female preserves such as public administration, education and health.
In Los Angeles the struggle for such jobs is well under way. Every month the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association produces a newsletter illustrating the shortage of Latinos in the top ranks of yet another government office. These reports nearly always show that blacks are over-represented. In the department of children and family services, for example, some 36% of managers are black, 29% are white and just 20% are Hispanic. Yet the reports also show that, over time, Hispanics have steadily taken high-level jobs from both blacks and whites.
If blacks and Hispanics are not brothers in the fight for equality, nor are they locked in a titanic struggle like the one between blacks and whites in the mid-20th-century South. Thankfully, there is far less violence. And the fact that leaders on both sides talk of a common cause probably helps. Yet one thing is the same: the group on top wants to stay there. Indeed, power hard-won from whites may be even more difficult to give up. As parts of Durham begin to resemble south-central Los Angeles, tensions between blacks and Latinos can only increase.