For Latinos and Blacks, a Call for Unity, Not Hate

Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2009

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I’d been invited by USC to be on a panel discussing the topic of blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles literature. But the mostly student audience didn’t want a writerly chat. They wanted to talk about the reality of a divided, angry city.

“There’s certain parts of Watts and Compton where blacks can’t go,” a young black man told us, rising up from his seat to describe Latino gang members’ slurs and threats.

A high school teacher rose to his feet, too, to talk about his Latino students’ ignorance of African American history and the intolerance he often hears from the Spanish-speaking immigrants around him.

It hurts me deeply to hear of these things. {snip}

Earlier this month, a few idiots with spray paint, and hate in their hearts, ran an African American family out of a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Duarte. It was the latest in a series of incidents in which suspected Latino gang members have committed crimes against black people.

These acts of intolerance are obviously the work of a tiny minority of delinquents. And yet they feed a larger malaise among African Americans. A lot of black people feel they’re being crowded out and disrespected by the growing plurality of Latinos around them.

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More often than we care to admit, our people segregate themselves from blacks in schools and churches.

And how many of us Latinos have been at family gatherings and heard some obnoxious old uncle drop a racist remark? {snip}

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Listen up, raza. We’re walking in the footsteps of giants. Black people have bled and been beaten in the name of equality, and without their sacrifice, we’d be 30 years behind where we are today.

The long African American struggle for civil rights has blossomed into an oak tree of justice whose large canopy protects all of us, no matter our color. And these days there are more of us Latinos huddled under its branches, seeking shelter from discrimination, than any other group.

Let’s start with the basic fact of our citizenship. Like thousands of others Angelenos, I am the son of immigrants. I thus owe my citizenship to Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom in 1857, and to people like Frederick Douglass, who took up his cause.

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After the Civil War, the black struggle to erase Scott vs. Sandford from American jurisprudence led to the passage of the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to those born in the United States. But these days, the children of Mexicans and Central Americans are its chief beneficiary.

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If you’re Latino and have had the pleasure of voting for someone with a Spanish surname, if you live in an integrated neighborhood, you have the dead and battered of 1960s Birmingham and Selma, Ala., to thank for it. Their martyrs are our martyrs too, because their sacrifice made the civil and voting rights we now enjoy possible.

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Many of the new Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles and surrounding cities have been established in historically black communities.

There was no organized black resistance to the “browning” of South-Central Los Angeles or Compton. Yes there were isolated crimes against Latino people in those places, but the more common, everyday truth was that African Americans accepted the arrival of strangers into their neighborhoods.

I saw this firsthand in 1992, when I lived in South-Central on assignment, with my Times colleague Charisse Jones to profile a community in transition from black to brown. We met African Americans who had learned a few words of Spanish and who remembered how whites tried to keep them out of the neighborhood in the 1950s.

“I was once in the same boat they are,” a 70-year-old black resident said of his Latino neighbors. “I don’t mistreat them because I didn’t want to be mistreated.”

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