Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2004 / 18 Shevat 5764
Unspoken conflicts: America's blacks and Latinos are struggling with a new racial paradigm
for the new century
Ever since the U.S. Census Bureau announced last summer that Latinos had surpassed blacks as the country's largest minority, members of both groups have been trying to figure out what to make of it.
In 2002, blacks made up 13.1 percent of the U.S. population and Hispanics 13.4 percent. Both groups are growing but the Latino population, boosted by high immigration rates, is growing faster. So are a salad bowl of other races and ethnicities, smaller than blacks or Latinos, but many growing at a faster rate. By midcentury, demographers project the entire country's population could become like California, where, the census says, minorities became the majority in 1999.
These population trends energize black conversations, spilling over to the Internet and talk-radio shows with chatter about whether the shifts foreshadow a decline in black influence or whether the groups have enough in common to build working alliances around anything more than shared grievances.
More apparent in news media, which tend to be drawn more readily to friction than friendliness, are the points of interethnic conflict political turf battles in New York City, school board feuds in Houston, employment arguments in Miami, Latino (among others) discrimination complaints against black-run Martin Luther King Hospital in Los Angeles, etc., etc., ...
Attracting much less attention are the countless encounters, interactions and intermarriages that take place every day as blacks and Latinos, among others in our national stir-fry, live and work together in urban and rural areas, each offering some visual encouragement for the appealing but misleading notion that the two groups are natural allies, a "rainbow coalition," despite significant differences.
I know as an African-American, for example, that many black folks are reluctant to form coalitions with other groups because we tend to view our historical experience as unique. Many owe this, as black scholar Cornel West has said, "to the unprecedented levels of unregulated and unrestrained violence" directed at us.
This perspective makes it difficult for us to accept how much other ethnic groups rising to prominence view African-Americans as more empowered than we think we are.
When the immigration issue rises in a hostile way, for example, reminding Mexicans and Central Americans of their vulnerabilities, African-Americans are often on the other side, expressing fears rooted in their own perceived vulnerabilities.
A new book, "The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America," by Nicolas C. Vaca, explores these conflicting perceptions with refreshing candor. He demythologizes the idealized concept of the "rainbow coalition" and calls on both groups to reintroduce themselves to each other. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
"The book does not argue that you can't have coalitions, but you have to examine situations to see that those conditions exist," Vaca, a Harvard-educated lawyer and University of California at Ber
keley-educated sociologist, told me in a telephone interview. "It is very important that those groups come together with a sense of an equal basis and formulate what they want from each other, not necessarily to maintain a permanent alliance, but to support each other in their respective goals."
Racial profiling offers an example of coalition building. In its first statewide compilation of racial data on traffic stops, Texas last week reported that black motorists are 3.5 times more likely to be searched than white Anglos and Latino drivers are 2.4 times more likely. Among the leading groups that commissioned the study were the Texas National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branches and the League of United Latino American Citizens.
Since former U.S. Rep. Kweise Mfume (D-Md.) became NAACP president in 1996, he has made a priority of outreach to Latinos and other non-whites, noting in speeches that "colored people come in all colors."
"One of the hardest things for us to get over is the assumption that this is an all-black organization concerned only with all-black issues," he told me. "We're changing because we see America is changing. Increasingly this is a nation of color, facing many of the same problems and challenges that we are as an organization."
If there is a gathering dialogue around black-Latino relations, as Mfume hopes, it is an extension of age-old encounters between new ethnic groups and old ones in a country of immigrants. But it also reflects a new racial paradigm for the new century.
In the 1960s, race relations was a national issue. In recent decades it has become a local issue. Blacks, Latinos and others get along as groups more productively in some towns and neighborhoods than in others. We can never safely presume an alliance, as Vaca's book title suggests, between any two groups. But incidents of successful intergroup cooperation confirm the durability of an old observation, that our various groups have more in common than we have in conflict. We are all Americans. With patience and mutual respect, we can work together on issues that we share in common and use that common ground as a platform on which we can work out our differences.
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