Latinos Replace Blacks as Top Minority, But Problems Remain

The Census Bureau's estimate that Latinos now outnumber blacks in the U.S. is no surprise. Demographers have long predicted that given the higher Latino birth rates and massive immigration, legal and otherwise, that Latinos would eventually dislodge blacks as the top minority in America. But the real story behind the Latino versus black numbers is not the numbers but the problems and challenges the numbers pose for each group.

Long before the Latino population surge, Latino political activists demanded that racial issues no longer be framed solely in black and white. Their aim was to get policy makers to pay more attention to the problems of the staggeringly high poverty rate, job and housing discrimination, failing public schools, and immigration that slam Latinos. Unfortunately, these have also been the very problems that have caused volatile conflict between blacks and Latinos.

Jobs: The first warning that many blacks felt threatened by soaring Latino immigration 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. Blacks by a thin majority also backed the measure. They were mortally afraid that Latinos would bump poor blacks from low skilled jobs, and further marginalize them by increasing joblessness, and fueling the crime and drug crisis in black neighborhoods.

But the prime reason for chronic black unemployment is lingering racial discrimination, the lack of job skills, training, and education. Yet many blacks still blame their job plight on illegal immigrants.

Politics: Latinos make up about five percent of the vote nationally and that number is growing bigger by the day. They are concentrated in the key electoral states of California, Florida, Texas, and New York. The number of Latino voters will continue to climb in 10 other states. The result has been a spectacular leap in the number of state and local Latino officeholders. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is fast closing in on the Congressional Black Caucus in the number of members. Republicans and Democrats will pull out all stops to bag Latino voters in 2004.

The big fear of blacks is that the national chase for Latino votes will erode the newfound political gains and power they have won through decades of struggle. Many African-American leaders argue that the numbers that count most are the voting numbers and blacks vote in proportionally greater numbers than Latinos.

Education: Latinos and blacks make up the majority of students in many of the nation's big city schools. Their schools are also among the poorest, and most segregated. In their desperation to get a quality education for their kids, Latinos and blacks accuse each other of gobbling up scarce resources, dragging down test scores, and fueling the rise in crime and gang problems at the schools. The answer is to press school officials for more funding, better teachers, and quality learning materials. But when the money is not there, the problem quickly is reduced to ethnic squabbling over the scarce dollars.

Then there's the problem of ethnic insensitivity. Many blacks perceive that Latinos encounter less discrimination and enjoy more mobility and opportunities. The stunning success of Asian and Latino immigrants in business and the professions seem proof of this. Many immigrants seem able to secure business loans, credit, access to education and the professions with much more ease than blacks.

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. Worse, some even repeat the same vicious anti-black epithets as racist whites.

But ethnic insensitivity cuts both ways. Blacks have little understanding of the impoverishment and social turmoil that has driven many Latinos to seek jobs and refuge in the United States. Once here, they face the massive problems of readjusting to a strange culture, customs, and language, and that includes discrimination too.

Despite these obstacles, blacks and Latinos increasingly live together in many inner-city neighborhoods. In some neighborhoods, community groups have tenuously bridged the culture and language gap and have joined forces to protest crime, school and housing deterioration. In many schools, Latino and black students participate jointly in Cinco de Mayo and Black History Month celebrations. They learn and appreciate more of the rich culture and history of each group. This increases the chances of blacks and Latinos eventually fighting together against housing and job discrimination, failing public schools, drugs and gang violence, and for criminal justice system reform. African-Americans and Latinos are undergoing a painful period of adjustment.

They are finding that the struggle for power and recognition is long and difficult. On some issues they can be allies, on others they will go it alone. But toppling blacks from the top minority spot in America won't make the problems blacks and Latinos face disappear, nor will blaming each other for those problems solve them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).


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