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Neurotic about change

ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN is a contributing editor to Opinion.

A LATINO FAMILY is moving onto my block.

This is an unremarkable event, and in the predominantly African American part of town where I live, certainly not an unprecedented one. It’s a natural part of the ebb and flow of all neighborhoods; turnover, like death and taxes, is certain. One of the great scenes of Americana is a van or a truck parked by the curb or driveway, ramp extended, as the rest of the block gathers on the sidewalk to watch the installment of new neighbors and their belongings. It represents social mobility and new beginnings at their most picturesque.

I do feel some of that sidewalk curiosity about the trucks I see. But I also shrink from them. I am anxious about the newcomers -- and I am not alone.

I know, I know: To feel other than welcoming to new arrivals is to be racist, xenophobic or, at the very least, neurotic about change. I adamantly reject the first two but reluctantly claim the third.

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Anxiety about change has been eating away at me for years, though not the change of black neighborhoods going Latino (fretting about that alone is xenophobic, not to mention fruitless). I’m talking about big, resonant, unsettling changes within black communities themselves, changes that have created vacuums that Latinos happen to be filling. This family moving onto my block brings me closer to that reality than I care to be.

Frankly, giving voice to this anxiety makes me uncomfortable. But for too long Angelenos have been unable or unwilling to talk about this particular dimension of the black/Latino relationship, partly because that relationship has always been too narrowly defined and too politicized to get at the all-too-human emotions driving so much anxiety like mine.

The usual conversation about black/brown relations centers on jobs, education or common goals. These are all legitimate topics, but there is a bigger discussion: about feelings blacks have not just about Latinos but about all sorts of changes -- from reconfigured census categories to the death of affirmative action -- that reflect our sense of our declining importance. It’s a deep, complex, historically cumulative feeling that doesn’t have a regular outlet, and when it does come out, it can sound intolerant and accusatory.

I recently sat through a meeting of black and Latino parents in South L.A. that was meant to bring them together over (you guessed it) education and common goals. But the meeting took a detour when a black father stood up to express concern about the administrative staff at his kids’ school not speaking English. He said it as neutrally as possible, but a pall was immediately cast on the room as well as the conversation. The man went on to say, his voice rising, that he was a veteran, that he’d lived his whole life in his neighborhood as an American, that he’d paid his dues.

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Xenophobic? Maybe. But mostly I saw a man struggling to be heard, trying (and perhaps failing) to articulate his anxiety about change -- at school, in his neighborhood and in the country at large. He was just upset, and he wanted the right to be upset.

Nobody black expects Latinos to solve our problems. But we are tired of implicit calls for us to be “reasonable.” Given our crazy-making history, is it surprising that we are a bit paranoid, that we react less than ideally to things like demographic shifts in our communities? Especially when those communities feel like the only currency we have left?

Yes, we’ve devalued that currency by leaving communities too eagerly over the years. Unlike the Irish or Italians or Jews of another era, we didn’t naturally evolve as a group out of our ghettos. Quite the opposite. Some blacks -- the relative few who could afford to do so -- have fled the ghettos that remain.

That fact, more than anything else, accounts for the anxiety I feel as I watch the trucks and vans pull up, and the lights go on, in that house down the street. “Ghetto” is far too strong a word to describe my neighborhood, by the way -- it’s much more than livable. Let’s just say it has abandonment issues.

That’s all I want the new arrivals to know. I’ll get over my anxiety; I have no choice. I will almost certainly like my neighbors, unless they run roughshod on my lawn or play music too late at night. But it’ll be fine because community is something I’m good at, something I know -- or knew once -- very, very well.


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