Inside the Jail Wars

At a recent raucous and contentious meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Marc Klugman, head of Correctional Services for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, said, "Everything that's going on in our streets is coming into our jails." Klugman's helpless warning is ominous and terrifying, but he's right. The jail violence between blacks and Latinos that has torn L.A. County jails has roots that go far beyond the jails.

The painful truth is that relations between blacks and Latinos are rife with cultural, racial, and economic myths and misconceptions. Since the civil rights era, the popular fiction was that blacks and Latinos are an oppressed people of color with a history of racial discrimination and poverty, so their struggle is the same.

During the 1960s, some blacks and Latinos did form organizations and raise issues that appeared to mirror each other. There was the Black Panther Party and the La Raza Unida Party, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Mexican-American Legal and Education Defense Fund, as well as dozens of local black and Latino activist groups. The Poor Peoples March in Washington D.C. in 1968 was the highpoint of ethnic co-operation during that time.

Blacks and Latinos enjoyed the political honeymoon of the era. Neither wanted to admit that the serious political and cultural differences between them could crack the facade of unity. But the last decade has presented a new reality.

Through massive immigration and higher birth rates, the Latino population has soared. Latinos have displaced blacks as the largest non-white minority in America. Latinos demand that political and social issues no longer be framed solely in black and white.

The clash has been especially fierce on three hot button issues: immigration and jobs, political representation, and street turf control.

Immigration and jobs: Many Latinos work at low pay jobs that offer no health, union or retirement benefits. Many employers take advantage of their economic plight and hire them to work the dirtiest and most hazardous jobs in plants, factories and farms. Unskilled or semi-skilled white and black workers once did these jobs. Employers defend their labor practices by insisting that Latinos "work harder, and don't cause problems." Latino leaders deflect criticism with the retort that "Americans won't take these jobs anyway."

While there is no conclusive evidence that Latinos take jobs away from American workers (studies have been conflicting), increased immigration came at the worst possible time for impoverished African-American communities. They are reeling from a decade of job, education, and social service cuts. Illegal immigrant labor competition could further marginalize the black poor by raising joblessness, decreasing benefits, and exacerbating the crime and drug crisis.

With federal and state governments grappling with massive budget deficits and corporations, in the throes of shakeout, outsourcing and downsizing, many African-American leaders see little point in demanding more federal and corporate spending on job and skill training. If some black leaders scream along with groups such as the Minuteman Project for a crackdown on illegal immigrants it is because they see Latinos -- whose customs and language are barely comprehensible to them -- as a direct threat to their economic existence.

Political representation: The tensions have spilled over into politics. Latinos have changed the ethnic make-up 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 office-holders, appointments and positions in California and Los Angeles.

But this could further erode the new-found 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 many, power is sharing out of question.

There is the problem of ethnic insensitivity. African-Americans note that Latinos (and other non-whites) did not experience chattel slavery and its legacy. Their family and ethnic cohesion was not ruptured. Nor were they color-stamped with the "badge of inferiority."

Many blacks perceive that Latinos are less harshly treated by white society, encounter less discrimination and enjoy more mobility and opportunities. The stunning success of Asian and Latino immigrants in business and the professions does seem to offer proof of this. They are often 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 like we did." 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 political repression and economic destitution that drives many Latinos to seek refuge in the United States. Many have fled from the ravages of war and revolution in their countries. They face the massive problems of readjusting to a strange culture, customs, and language. Latino immigrants and the native born also suffer police abuse and face the same racial discrimination in jobs, and housing, and health care, and as many blacks do.

Street turf control: Then there's the action in the streets. For years black gangs have controlled the drug traffic, sale of contraband, and other illicit activities in South L.A. and other urban inner city neighborhoods. The influx of young, poorly educated, crime-prone gang members from El Salvador, Mexico, and other Latin countries has ignited street clashes with blacks over turf. The street turf struggles have spilled over into the prisons, with groups such as the Mexican Mafia more than willing to give orders to attack blacks to assert their dominance.

L.A. County officials cite prison overcrowding, turf wars, renewal of gang rivalries, the ancient prison ritual of making a "rep" as a tough guy, or just boredom for the violence. It's that and much more, and jail authorities and elected officials must recognize that.

African-Americans and Latinos are undergoing a painful period of political and economic adjustment. They are finding that the struggle for power and recognition will be long and difficult. The wars in the L.A. County jails are a tragic, deplorable symptom of that.

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