The Black-Latino Blame Game

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2007

One Friday earlier this month, a small but vocal group of black activists turned up at City Hall to blast Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and members of the City Council for failing to work hard enough to prevent violence by Latino gang members against blacks in South Los Angeles.

“You have one race of people exterminating another race of people,” said one African American woman.

On the same day, elsewhere in the city, Latino parents stormed out of a meeting of a Los Angeles Unified School District advisory council. The council had been fighting for months about whether to hold its meetings in Spanish or English—a dispute that got so abusive that district officials felt the need to bring in dispute-resolution experts and mental health counselors. On this particular Friday, the Latino parents walked out after a group of black parents voted to censure the panel’s Latino chairman.

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Animosity between Latinos and blacks is the worst-kept secret in race relations in America. For years, Latino leaders have pointed the finger of blame at blacks when Latinos are robbed, beaten and even murdered. Blacks, in turn, have blamed Latinos for taking jobs, for colonizing neighborhoods, for gang violence. These days, the tension between the races is noticeable not only in prison life and in gang warfare (where it’s been a staple of life for decades) but in politics, in schools, in housing, in the immigration debate. Conflicts today are just as likely—in some cases, more likely—to be between blacks and Latinos as between blacks and whites. In fact, even though hate-crime laws were originally created to combat crimes by whites against minority groups, the majority of L.A. County’s hate crimes against blacks in 2006 were suspected to have been committed by Latinos, and vice versa, according to the county Commission on Human Relations.

{snip} At a 2005 meeting in L.A., for instance, black radio host Terry Anderson summed up a not-uncommon position in the African American community when he blamed illegal immigrants for stealing jobs from blacks and crowding schools. “We’ve been invaded,” he said. “There’s no other word for it.”

One of the first warnings that many blacks felt threatened by soaring Latino numbers was the battle over Proposition 187 in California in 1994. California voters approved the measure, which denied public services to illegal immigrants, by a huge margin. Shockingly, blacks also backed the measure; one L.A. Times poll several months after the proposition passed showed blacks supporting its “immediate implementation,” 58% to 36%. Apparently, blacks were mortally afraid that Latinos would bump them from low-skill jobs and further marginalize them by increasing joblessness and fueling the crime and drug crises in black neighborhoods. And it’s probably true that at the low end of the scale some young, poor, unskilled blacks have been shut out of jobs at hotels and restaurants and in manufacturing. There’s also fierce competition for the dwindling number of affirmative action spots in colleges.

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Over the years, racial fear has spilled into politics; blacks worry that the national chase for Latino votes will erode the political gains and power they have won through decades of struggle. That was evident in the ambivalence and even flat-out hostility of many blacks toward Villaraigosa in his first bid for mayor. Heard repeatedly on the streets was that a Villaraigosa win would mean the ouster of blacks from City Hall.

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The only real solution is to press school officials for more funding, better teachers and high-quality learning materials, but when the money is not there, the problem quickly is reduced to ethnic squabbling over scarce dollars. And students take up the battle, as in the case of the months-long skirmishes between black and Latino kids at Jefferson High School in 2005—where the student body had gone from 31% Latino to 92% Latino in 25 years.

Partly, these are problems of empathy. Many Latinos fail to understand the complexity and severity of the black experience. They frequently bash blacks for their poverty and goad them to pull themselves up as other immigrants have done. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox took heat from black leaders in 2005 when he claimed that Mexican immigrants would do work in the United States that “not even blacks” want to do. Some Latinos repeat the same vicious anti-black epithets as racist whites—like the Latino kid at Jefferson High who helped start a race riot when he yelled “Go back to Africa!” at his fellow students.

{snip} Changing demographics and the rise of Latinos to the top minority spot in America won’t make the problems of either group disappear. Nor will blaming each other for those problems solve them.

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