One Friday earlier this month, a small but vocal group of black activists turned up at City Hall to blast Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and members of the City Council for failing to work hard enough to prevent violence by Latino gang members against blacks in South Los Angeles.
"You have one race of people exterminating another race of people," said one African American woman.
On the same day, elsewhere in the city, Latino parents stormed out of a meeting of a Los Angeles Unified School District advisory council. The council had been fighting for months about whether to hold its meetings in Spanish or English -- a dispute that got so abusive that district officials felt the need to bring in dispute-resolution experts and mental health counselors. On this particular Friday, the Latino parents walked out after a group of black parents voted to censure the panel's Latino chairman.
These two events are certainly not isolated incidents, but they are the most recent examples of the long-running tensions between blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles. Just a few weeks earlier, federal prosecutors had filed a highly publicized case against more than 60 members of Florencia 13, a Latino street gang that prosecutors say engaged in a violent campaign to drive African American gang rivals out the South L.A. neighborhood of Florence-Firestone, resulting in more than 20 killings over three years. In the late 1980s, according to a report in The Times, the neighborhood was about 80% African American, but today it is 90% Latino.
Animosity between Latinos and blacks is the worst-kept secret in race relations in America. For years, Latino leaders have pointed the finger of blame at blacks when Latinos are robbed, beaten and even murdered. Blacks, in turn, have blamed Latinos for taking jobs, for colonizing neighborhoods, for gang violence. These days, the tension between the races is noticeable not only in prison life and in gang warfare (where it's been a staple of life for decades) but in politics, in schools, in housing, in the immigration debate. Conflicts today are just as likely -- in some cases, more likely -- to be between blacks and Latinos as between blacks and whites. In fact, even though hate-crime laws were originally created to combat crimes by whites against minority groups, the majority of L.A. County's hate crimes against blacks in 2006 were suspected to have been committed by Latinos, and vice versa, according to the county Commission on Human Relations.
Across the country -- in Plainfield, N.J.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Annapolis, Md., and Indianapolis, Ind., among other places -- the clash between black and brown has drawn attention, and lots of it, because it involves two groups that some think should be natural allies. At least that's what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez thought four decades ago. They had a mutual admiration society and passionately believed that blacks and Latinos were equally oppressed minorities and should march in lock step. "Our separate struggles are really one -- a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity," King wrote to Chavez in 1965. But that rhapsodic notion of black and brown harmony is now the faintest of faint memories. Three years ago, when the Census Bureau proclaimed Latinos the largest minority in the U.S., many blacks loudly grumbled that they would be shoved even further to the margin among minorities. The grumbles have risen to a near-shrill pitch among many blacks during the immigration debates of recent years. Although most civil rights leaders and black Democrats publicly embraced the immigrant rights struggle, many blacks privately expressed dread about being bypassed in the battle against poverty and discrimination, and some were actively hostile to the goals of immigrant groups. At a 2005 meeting in L.A., for instance, black radio host Terry Anderson summed up a not-uncommon position in the African American community when he blamed illegal immigrants for stealing jobs from blacks and crowding schools. "We've been invaded," he said. "There's no other word for it."
One of the first warnings that many blacks felt threatened by soaring Latino numbers 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. Shockingly, blacks also backed the measure; one L.A. Times poll several months after the proposition passed showed blacks supporting its "immediate implementation," 58% to 36%. Apparently, blacks were mortally afraid that Latinos would bump them from low-skill jobs and further marginalize them by increasing joblessness and fueling the crime and drug crises in black neighborhoods. And it's probably true that at the low end of the scale some young, poor, unskilled blacks have been shut out of jobs at hotels and restaurants and in manufacturing. There's also fierce competition for the dwindling number of affirmative action spots in colleges.
The prime reason for chronic black unemployment, however, is lingering racial discrimination and the lack of job skills, training and education.
Over the years, racial fear has spilled into politics; blacks worry that the national chase for Latino votes will erode the political gains and power they have won through decades of struggle. That was evident in the ambivalence and even flat-out hostility of many blacks toward Villaraigosa in his first bid for mayor. Heard repeatedly on the streets was that a Villaraigosa win would mean the ouster of blacks from City Hall.
Fear also has spilled into the schools. The battle between black and Latino members over whether the L.A. Unified parents advisory panel meetings should be conducted in English or Spanish actually masked larger issues. Many blacks feel they are getting the short end of the stick educationally in a school district in which Latinos make up more than 70% of the students.
Of course, there's nothing unique about L.A.'s situation. Latinos and blacks make up the majority of students in many big-city school districts -- and these public schools are among the poorest and most segregated. In their desperation to get a quality education for their kids, Latinos and blacks in many districts across the country 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 only real solution is to press school officials for more funding, better teachers and high-quality learning materials, but when the money is not there, the problem quickly is reduced to ethnic squabbling over scarce dollars. And students take up the battle, as in the case of the months-long skirmishes between black and Latino kids at Jefferson High School in 2005 -- where the student body had gone from 31% Latino to 92% Latino in 25 years.
Partly, these are problems of empathy. 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. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox took heat from black leaders in 2005 when he claimed that Mexican immigrants would do work in the United States that "not even blacks" want to do. Some Latinos repeat the same vicious anti-black epithets as racist whites -- like the Latino kid at Jefferson High who helped start a race riot when he yelled "Go back to Africa!" at his fellow students.
Ethnic insensitivity, however, cuts both ways. Many blacks have little understanding of the impoverishment and social turmoil that has driven so many Latinos to seek jobs and refuge in the United States. Once here, they face the massive problems of adjusting to a strange culture, new customs and a different language, and that includes discrimination too.
Despite the problems, the picture is not one of total gloom and doom. Blacks and Latinos have worked together in some communities to combat police abuse, crime and violence, as well as for school improvements and increased neighborhood services. Still, the painful truth is that blacks and Latinos have found 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. Changing demographics and the rise of Latinos to the top minority spot in America won't make the problems of either group disappear. Nor will blaming each other for those problems solve them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation Between African Americans and Hispanics," published by Middle Passage Press.