Black-Latino divide

Pretending it’s not real won’t solve L.A.’s racial issue
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Saturday, June 25, 2005 - The issue is painful and explosive, and city and county officials tap dance around it for fear that they’ll offend blacks and Latinos or that they’ll stir up racial antagonisms. But Los Angeles’ black and Latino clash is real and deep-seated, and it goes way beyond the recent spike in hate crimes at L.A. schools.

So far, L.A.’s politicians have taken the cowardly way out and buried the simmering conflict under sociologists’ jargon. They toss out terms like “ethnic tensions,” “L.A.’s population growing pains” and “changing urban dynamics” to mask the conflict. They kid themselves that by staging feel-good, media-hyped “days of dialogue” with handpicked academics and community leaders, they’ll get to the bottom of the conflict.

This politically correct, fantasy-land approach to L.A.’s black and Latino divide virtually ensures that the profound problems that underlie the clash will remain just as deep — and just as misunderstood. But, then, that’s not new. Politicians have long papered over black-Latino racial conflict by putting on the happy image of everyone marching shoulder to shoulder to do battle against the twin afflictions of racial discrimination and poverty.

That’s no longer possible.

The big surge in Latino numbers in Los Angeles and nationally has radically changed the political power equation. Latinos have now replaced blacks as the dominant minority in America. Latino activists and political leaders have had to make a hard decision: Do they discard old multiracial coalitions with blacks — and instead rely on their growing numbers and political clout to win elections? Or do they reach out to blacks and opt for power-sharing?

Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa has opted for the multiracial approach. During his campaign, he tried mightily to convince black voters that his election would not diminish their dwindling political power in the city and that they would have a place in his administration.

The strategy paid off, in part. Villaraigosa got the endorsement of the city’s top black politicians and community leaders, and he markedly bumped up the black votes he received from the number he got during his 2001 mayoral race. But Mayor James Hahn still held a slight overall edge among black voters. Blacks clung tightly to Hahn mostly from fear, even paranoia, that a Latino mayor — and an escalating number of Latino voters in the city — would spell doom for them at City Hall.

That will happen anyway. South Los Angeles is no longer predominantly black. It is predominantly Latino. In future years, Latinos will grab one, possibly two, and maybe even all three of the L.A. City Council seats currently held by blacks. That almost certainly will spark even fiercer political and racial turf warfare. Blacks will lose that battle, and their political power in the city will dwindle down to a fizzle.

But politics and school troubles, worrisome as they are, are not the biggest flash point of conflict between blacks and Latinos. Jobs and immigration are, and L.A.’s elected officials are loath to talk about either for fear they’ll be called racially divisive.

The irony is it took a stray, impolitic remark by Mexican President Vicente Fox back in May to ram the issue back on the racial table. Fox meant no harm with his quip that blacks won’t work certain jobs. He was trying to make the point that congressional immigration reforms are bad for Mexicans and Americans. That’s a disputable point, but it brought instant howls of protest from Jesse Jackson and other black leaders.

Though Fox slightly backed away from his quip, what he said needed to be said. Still, its implication was wrong. The black unemployment rate is double that of whites and higher than that of Latinos in L.A. County. Among young black males, unemployment has reached near Great Depression levels in the city and the county. Jobs, or rather the scarcity of them, are a major crisis for blacks. Blacks have been bumped from lower-end jobs in the service and retail industries in L.A. County.

Young blacks, especially students, might well take these jobs if they were offered them, but many employers flatly refuse to hire them, instead hiring illegal immigrants. Employers rationalize their discrimination with the claim that young blacks are lazy or more crime-prone, and illegal immigrants are more diligent and industrious.

This pricks a sore racial nerve among blacks, and rightly so. High joblessness exacerbates the crime and drug crisis in South L.A., and it fuels school violence. It further marginalizes the black poor and young.

Many blacks unabashedly blame their jobless plight on illegal immigration. This is not totally fair. The lack of job skills, training and education programs — and the high incarceration rate of black males — all help to render them virtually unemployable. Yet, it’s still true that immigration has displaced blacks from unskilled and low-skilled jobs, and that’s just enough truth to fuel passions and anger.

That anger seeped through in a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California. It found that blacks, far more than whites, regard illegal immigrants as a big drain on public services and a liability to the local economy. The perception — no matter how baseless — that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from blacks will continue to inflame resentment.

Villaraigosa has obliquely acknowledged that job competition is a critical problem. He has pledged that his administration will do everything it can to increase job opportunities. However, he has not said what, if anything, he would do to dent South L.A.’s shamefully high black unemployment problem.

The solution to racial conflict in L.A.’s schools and on the streets includes many components: diversity in City Hall; mandatory cultural-sensitivity programs for teachers, students and parents; school safe zones; tougher school discipline; a crash program in job and skills training for young blacks; a full attack on job discrimination; tighter immigration controls; and swift punishment of police misconduct.

What city or county official will boldly commit to that?

This August marks the 40th anniversary of the devastating 1965 Watts riot. It sent the terrifying signal to America and the world that racial violence can tear the heart out of a nation and a city. L.A. politicians and community leaders say that type of violence can’t happen again. They say they’ve learned the lesson of the past. But one of the lessons they haven’t learned is that failure to tackle the root causes of racial conflict is a prescription for disaster.

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