An attempt by a prominent black community group to reach out to Latinos by staging a Cinco de Mayo celebration has backfired, leading to public charges by a Latino group of racial insensitivity, and increased tension between black and Latino county employees.
The dispute began last week, when a Los Angeles County welfare official distributed a memo to department supervisors asking for names of staff members to attend the May 4 event sponsored by the Brotherhood Crusade, which often deals with welfare workers.
"The purpose of the event is to bridge the cultural gap that sometimes exists between the black and Hispanic communities throughout the county," the official, William A. Lee, chief of welfare payments, wrote. "They would like 60% of the 100 DPSS (Department of Public Social Services) employees invited to be of Hispanic descent."
Raul Nunez, president of the Chicano Employees Assn., which represents about 1,300 county workers, said in an interview Wednesday that he regarded the memo as an attempt to set a racial quota.
"I'm sure the motive of the Brotherhood Crusade might have been in the spirit of inter-group relationships, but they've got to be a hell of a lot more sensitive than that," he said. "How would they feel if we were to sponsor a Martin Luther King festival and say we wanted 60% of the people attending to be black?"
Surprised by Reaction
Leaders of the Brotherhood Crusade, a 20-year-old service organization to which many county employees contribute through a payroll deduction program, said they were surprised by both the 60% figure and the reaction to it.
"That was just a faux pax," said Danny Bakewell, Crusade president. "I've never heard that figure. There are no quotas involved. We consider ourselves to be very sensitive to the Hispanic community, and very indebted to them for their ongoing support of our organization."
Lee said the 60% figure was given to him by a Brotherhood Crusade staff member as a "target figure."
"I certainly didn't mean any offense by it," he said.
The Chicano Employees Assn. went so far as to send an attorney to the county counsel's office last Friday to threaten a lawsuit for misuse of public resources if Lee did not stop soliciting attendance for the festival-type event to be held the night of May 4 at the group's headquarters on East Slauson Avenue.
All county employees, as well as the public, are invited to the free event, officials said.
The lawsuit threat appeared to end with a new memo by Lee this week inviting all staff members to attend and to contact the Brotherhood Crusade directly.
The dispute exacerbates tensions raised in February by a county report that said Latinos are "considerably under-represented" among county employees. The report said Latinos represent 18.3% of county employees, but 27.6% of all people living in the county.
The Black Employees Assn. charges that the census data is skewed because it counts illegal immigrants. The Chicano Employees Assn. counters that blacks are over-represented because they compose 30% of the county work force, but make up 12.6% of the county population.
"It's been really tense," Nunez said, acknowledging that the Chicano Employees Assn. had voiced its anger over the Cinco de Mayo event to the news media before talking to the black groups involved. "They haven't called us and we haven't called them."