Negotiating the black-white divide

GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

IMAGINE LOS ANGELES had a black mayor. Now imagine she were white. Then ask yourself how each would have dealt with the black-white tensions that emerged during the debate over former firefighter Tennie Pierce's discrimination suit and the proposed $2.7-million settlement.

I'm not implying that a politician's race predetermines how he deals with a racially charged issue, but it would be naive to think that their respective backgrounds and constituencies don't influence their ability to negotiate a conflict.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa did a commendable job in defusing the tensions that erupted over the Pierce affair. And, frankly, he did so by playing both sides of the battle. Without making explicit reference to race, he first appeased white constituents — many of whom had been riled up by KFI-AM's racially provocative "John & Ken Show" — by vetoing the City Council's settlement with Pierce. Then, two weeks later, after nudging Fire Chief William Bamattre into retirement, he appealed to black constituents by appointing a high-ranking African American fire official to serve as interim chief.

Clearly, Villaraigosa's deft handling of this delicate situation is a product of his individual political skill. But it was also made possible, in part, by the fact that he is neither black nor white, but Mexican American.

On the one hand, the uproar over the Pierce dog-food-eating hazing reminds us that even in our near-majority Latino city, no other racial dynamic has the power to divide the political class quite like the one that exists between blacks and whites. On the other hand, it may give us some indication of how the growing number of high-ranking Mexican American politicians will choose to negotiate our nation's traditional black-white divide.

In 1930, Texas economist Max Handman pondered the long-term racial effect of Mexican immigration. He was concerned that the United States had "no social technique for handling partly colored races." As he saw it, the black-white divide was "difficult enough" but was nonetheless "simple." He feared that the growing Mexican population would further inflame the nation's traditionally binary racial conflict. "We have a place for the Negro and a place for the white man," he wrote. "The Mexican is not a Negro, and the white man refuses him equal status. What will result from this I am not a prophet enough to foretell, but I know that it may mean trouble."

Mass immigration from Latin America and Asia has indeed added new tensions and conflicts to the American racial landscape. We've seen strife between blacks and Latinos, and competition between Asians and whites. But in a way Handman could never have imagined, it also has added new possibilities and fresh arbiters to our longest-standing racial dispute.

As Handman suggested, it was never clear where Mexican Americans belonged in the black-white racial scheme. In the 1920 census, they were counted as whites. Ten years later, they were reassigned to a separate Mexican "racial" category; in 1950, they were white again. By 1980, the federal government threw up its hands and allowed all Latinos to claim whatever racial background they wished. And though they have occupied intermediate ground, Mexican Americans themselves often felt obliged to position themselves on one side or the other of the black-white divide. For most of the 20th century, Mexican American activists fought hard for the privileges that came with being white in the U.S. But by the late 1960s, the federal government's response to urban riots and the Black Power movement convinced a growing number of activists that nonwhite status had its benefits.

Today, the confidence that stems from growing numbers is enabling many Mexican Americans to embrace their mixed racial heritage, claim the middle ground and opt out of the black-white schism. In California, nearly half of Latinos tell the Census Bureau that they are members of some "other race." After spending so much energy trying to fit into one side or the other of the black-white system, more and more Mexican Americans are realizing that there is power in being "none of the above." By employing his racially intermediate status, Villaraigosa proved to be an effective arbiter. Maybe that's what our racial climate has been needing — new referees.

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