Rising Latino Numbers, Rising Black Fears

Two years ago, when the Census Bureau proclaimed Latinos the top minority in the U.S., many blacks loudly grumbled that they would be shoved even further to the margin among minorities. The new Census report shows that Latinos are now decisively America's top minority, are widening the numbers gap on blacks. That gap will widen even more in the coming years due to their higher birth rate and the continued flood of new immigrants, both legal and illegal, from south of the border.

That won't do much to quiet the complaints of many blacks. And those grumbles have risen to a near-shrill pitch during the immigration debate. The polls that show blacks as generally more favorable toward illegal immigrants than whites are wildly at odds with the sentiments many blacks privately express on immigration. Legions of black callers flood black talk radio stations and websites with rants against illegal immigrants. The attacks, for the most part, are a thinly disguised bash of Latinos.

This ethnic one-upmanship should be vigorously denounced. And most civil rights leaders and black Democrats publicly embrace the immigrants' rights struggle as a crucial and compelling civil rights fight. Yet, the dread many blacks feel about being bypassed in the eternal battle against poverty and discrimination is not totally groundless. Corporations are leaping over themselves to grab a bigger share of Latino consumer dollars and have virtually scrapped any talk of affirmative action and increased funding for job and skills training programs for the black poor.

The day the Census report was released, the AC Nielson firm -- one of the country's top marketing information companies -- predicted that retail stores and supermarkets would launch a massive marketing and promotion pitch of their products to Latino buyers.

And since dollars and politics are tightly linked, Republicans and Democrats will radically ramp up their efforts to bag the Latino vote. Bush has understood the crucial importance of the Latino vote better than any other Republican politician. As Texas governor, he adroitly read his political tea leaves. He wined and dined Latino voters, politicians, business leaders, and Mexican government officials.

Despite his towering bumbles on nearly every major foreign and domestic policy issue, as president he hasn't missed a beat in his court of the Latino vote. His touting of Mexico-U.S. relations, affirmation of immigration reform, and his radio broadcasts in broken Spanish washed away much of the bad taste in the mouths of Latino voters in California and the Southwest. That paid big dividends for him in grabbing Florida, and crucial Western and Southwestern states, in both presidential runs.

But even if Bush hadn't wooed Latino voters, a substantial number of them would still have backed the Republicans. Polls show that a sizeable number are pro-family values, against abortion and gay rights, support small business, and support the military. They are ripe for the GOP line.

They are also not tightly bound in the straitjacket of the Democratic Party. In California and Texas, there are politically active and influential Latino Republican Legislative Caucuses. In the 2004 election, Bush nabbed more than one-third of the Latino vote.

This will force the Democrats to scramble even harder to top the Republicans in the hunt for Latino support. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, both parties will spend millions to increase their share of the Latino vote. Democrats feel no need to make the same effort with blacks, since most blacks are already solid Democrats -- whose fury against Bush, in the wake of the Katrina debacle, is even more boundless.

The Democrats almost certainly will spend fewer dollars on black voter registration and place less emphasis on the vital public policy issues that especially impact poor black communities. But that also puts blacks in a double bind. If through anger, alienation, or distrust of the Democrats, they stay away from the polls in droves in 2008, they doom themselves to be pushed even further to the political edge.

Then there's immigration. Whether or not Congress eventually passes an immigration reform law, the issue will still be at or near the top of national debate. That debate will continue to prick a tender spot with many blacks. They'll finger-point at illegal immigrants for stealing jobs, and blame them for getting even shorter shrift in the shrinking funds for education and heath care. Some blacks -- out of fear, anger and desperation -- will even flirt with a borderline racially suspect fringe group like the Minutemen.

The fear and resentment of some blacks against Latinos for muscling them out of the ethnic spotlight won't go away. But neither will the reality that Latinos are drastically changing America's ethnic face. And that's not a bad thing.


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