The Tensions Between Blacks and Latinos: How Volatile?


In South-Central Los Angeles--a predominantly black area now increasingly Latino--there are billboards with large pictures of boxing champion Muhammad Ali and farm labor leader Cesar Chavez. They appear to be gazing at something in the distance. “We listen together,” says the ad for radio station KJLH. “Let’s live together.”

It’s a welcome marketing approach in a city showing the strain between African-American and Latino residents. Blacks were looking for more support from the Latino community in protesting the Rodney King beating and racial injustice in general; Latinos were looking for more support from the black community in pushing to make public schools responsive to the needs of thousands of Latino children. This is on top of an open political rivalry as African Americans struggle to maintain hard-fought gains and Latinos and Asians struggle to win a greater share. The county is now nearly 40% Latino, 11% African-American and 10% Asian; in the city, the Latino and black populations are even higher.

GROWING RESENTMENT: Latinos and blacks, unfortunately, have grown apart since they worked side by side with American Indians and Spaniards to establish the pueblo that came to be Los Angeles. The legacy of redlining and discrimination has meant that blacks and Latinos always lived near each other; now that physical closeness is combining with economic and political competition to breed resentment, which too often explodes into violent episodes.


Similar tensions led to warfare in Miami and, most recently, to riots in Washington. And there’s been no lack of problems here:

In South Gate, Latino parents objected to sending their children to a nearby predominantly black high school; in Compton, African-American city officials resisted hiring more Latinos; in South-Central Los Angeles and in the South Bay, groups of African-American and Latino students have faced off repeatedly in brawls.

In Watts, at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, black and Latino county employees are bickering over hiring and promotions. The hospital is the one concrete, positive result of the 1965 riots and a powerful symbol for blacks. But it’s also a hospital that’s serving a community now half Latino. The conflict must be resolved without negating the importance the institution holds for blacks or dismissing the needs of the area’s growing immigrant population. That won’t be neatly accomplished; the political agendas in this controversy are in direct opposition.

But when there are mutual interests, those who call themselves leaders must focus on the commonalities between blacks and Latinos. Those commonalities are not as broad as some sloganeering would suggest but also are not as rare as some agitators would hope. This will become especially important in areas where there’s an increasing mix of blacks and Latinos, as well as in areas where a Latino/Asian majority is emerging.

There are a few signs of hope. At George Washington Carver Junior High School in South-Central, three buildings were recently named in honor of Latino heroes. Black and Latino faculty and staff worked together. That wasn’t lost on students Jose Deleon and Keisha Gates. “Some people think we (Latinos) are here just to butt in,” Deleon said. “But we are here to be something, like them.” “Now we know that everybody, black and Mexican, has worked for freedom,” Gates said. “If we try to help each other, maybe we can stop fighting and stop racism.”

COLOR CLASH: Gates and Deleon serve as an important reminder of how individual effort can break down ethnic barriers. There will always be competition and conflict between interest groups elbowing for position. But when racial hostility poisons everyday life--when neighbors organize by racial cliques, when children are pitted against each other based on skin color--then political leaders, school leaders, neighborhood block club leaders and parents must confront it. Call it prejudice. Call it fear. But call it something.


The unacceptable alternative is that too much of Los Angeles will continue its nasty hidden habit of hissing whispered epithets between gritted teeth, masked by stony indifference or phony smiles. Nonchalance and fake affability can cover up a lot in Hollywood, but they can’t paper over much in the streets. Before the smiles turn to scowls and screams, as they did in Miami and Washington, people in Los Angeles must work to turn it around.

As the two groups who have the most to gain--and the most to lose if the overall racial climate in Los Angeles gets uglier--African Americans and Latinos can show the way. And they must, because more and more, like it or not, they are sharing the same neighborhoods and schools. Maybe Muhammad Ali and Cesar Chavez on the South-Central billboard were gazing at something bright that the rest of us have yet to see.

L.A.’s Population Trends 1980 Total Population: 7,477,503 Anglo: 52.9% Latino: 27.6% Black: 12.4% Asian / Am. Indian: 6.0% Other: 1.1% 1990 Total Population: 8,863,164 Anglo: 40.8% Latino: 37.8% Black: 10.5% Asian: 10.2% Am. Indian: 0.3% Other: 0.2% * In 1980, the Census Bureau counted non-Latino Asians and non-Latino American Indians in the same category. In 1990, these groups were counted separately.