The Black and Latino Clash

The recent brawl between black and Latino students at Los Angeles high schools and reports of Mexican gangs targeting blacks momentarily grabbed national media attention and triggered police alerts. It was the latest in a series of high school clashes and reports of gun violence between blacks and Latinos in the past couple of years. The black and Latino conflict is played out against L.A.'s mayoral election May 17. L.A. city councilman Antonio Villaraigosa is the frontrunner. If elected he would become the first Latino mayor of the nation's second biggest city. He needs black support to win, and there is much ambivalence among black voters about him.

That's another troubling sign that black and Latino unity is still far from a reality. Tensions between Latinos and blacks have always lurked dangerously close to the surface. The tensions have been fueled by the changing ethnic realities in L.A. and America in the past decade.

Through massive immigration and higher birth rates, the Latino population has soared. Latinos have displaced blacks as the largest non-white minority in America. It's not just the numbers. Like blacks many Latinos have prospered in the professions and business and have deepened their influence particularly within the Republican Party. Latinos demand that political and social issues no longer be framed solely in black and white.

The agenda of African Americans and Latinos diverge on immigration, political representation, jobs, and bilingual education.

Immigration: Many Latino immigrants have been displaced from the land, have little education, and few job prospects in their native countries, they are "economic refugees." Survival, not assimilation, is their priority. They fiercely guard their customs, traditions, religion and language. Many prefer to live in tight-knit barrios to better preserve family ties and language. They send money home to Mexico or El Salvador and return often to visit relatives and friends. Their faces are turned as much to their native countries as America.

Jobs: Many Latinos work at low pay jobs that offer no health, union or retirement benefits. To many these jobs represent a marked improvement from the life they left. Many employers take advantage of their economic plight and hire them to work the dirtiest and most hazardous jobs in plants, factories and farms. Previously unskilled or semi-skilled white and black workers held these jobs. The increased immigration has come at the worst possible time for poor African-American communities. They are reeling from a decade of job, education, and social service cuts. Immigrant labor competition could further marginalize the black poor by raising joblessness, decreasing benefits, and exacerbating the crime and drug crisis.

Bilingual education: African Americans insist that this benefits Latinos and hurts them. Cash-strapped underserved inner city school districts can hardly be expected to stem the astronomical dropout and illiteracy rates among black students without adequate funds, materials and trained staff. Bilingual programs could further drain school districts of those badly needed resources. Latinos counter that biingual education is crucial to improving reading and math proficiency skills for their Spanish-speaking children. Without these programs, they cannot hope to advance educationally and professionally. The solution is to spend more on the educational needs of all students. However, when the money is not there, the problem quickly is reduced to ethnic squabbling over the scarce dollars.

Political representation: The tensions have spilled over into politics. Latinos insist that their bigger numbers have changed the ethnic makeup of many neighborhoods from black and white to brown. From the local to the national level, Latino leaders now demand their fair share of political officeholders, appointments and positions.

This could erode the newfound political gains and power blacks 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. To them, power is sharing out of question. Government cutbacks in job and social programs have wreaked havoc on the black and Latino poor. Both have a vital interest in the fight for low-cost housing, quality education, better health care, police protection and efficient city services.

With blacks and browns increasingly living together in many residential neighborhoods, the physical separation has broken down. This has made dialogue between the groups easier. In some neighborhoods, community groups have tenuously bridged the culture and language gap and have joined forces to protest crime, school and housing deterioration.

The battle over bilingual education, redistricting, and immigration can also be mitigated. National organizations such as the National Council of La Raza and the NAACP can keep the lines of communication open through multi-issue workshops, conferences, meetings, and seminars.

The hard truth, though, is that blacks and Latinos are undergoing a painful period of adjustment in L.A. and America. They will find the struggle for unity will be long and difficult. If enough blacks back Villaraigosa and there's peace on the streets and in the schools, that will be a good sign that black and Latino unity could be more than a pipedream.

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