Tensions Mounting Between Blacks and Latinos Nationwide

Evidence of a divide between blacks and Hispanics mounting

One after another, the reports have rolled in. From Florida to California, Nevada to New Jersey, even as far away as the state of Washington, the news is getting harder to ignore: There's trouble brewing between blacks and browns.

At Hug High School in Reno, Nev., an emergency task force began work last October after a series of fights between black and Hispanic students that interim Schools Superintendent Paul Dugan said reflected "definite racial tensions." In Monroe, Wash., similar tensions shot up after a Mexican flag was torn down and thrown into a bathroom and several off-campus fights broke out. In Chicago, seven students were arrested after an interracial brawl in January left teachers and security guards injured and parents complaining of mounting racial strife.

But it was in schools in California, where so many of the nation's trends first take shape, that this disturbing conflict was most obvious.

On Nov. 8, hundreds of black and Latino students got into two separate battles in the streets around Wilmer Amina Carter High School in Rialto. Two days later, another interracial fight broke out on campus, and four days after that a huge battle erupted in the lunchroom, leaving 57 of the hundreds of students involved injured. At around the same time, more than 20 police officers broke up a series of street fights between black and Latino students outside Fremont High School in Oakland that involved as many as 150 participants and bystanders. In San Jacinto, a riot at San Jacinto High School between black and Hispanic students resulted in three arrests, six suspensions and the lockdown of 1,700 students. Some 500 students were involved in the fight, and police reported some arriving parents added fuel to the fire by shouting racial slurs and urging their children to keep up the battle. Similar racial conflicts hit Crenshaw, Manual Arts and Jordan high schools in Los Angeles.

The Presumed Alliance
Traditionally, black and brown activists have seen themselves in a natural alliance in a country historically dominated by whites — an alliance of mostly poorer, darker-skinned minorities whose struggles are not dissimilar. But like the civil-rights-era alliance between blacks and Jews, the black/brown coalition has grown more and more strained. Many blacks resent what is seen as Hispanics leapfrogging them up the socioeconomic ladder, and some complain of the skin-color prejudices that are particularly strong in some Hispanic countries, notably Mexico. Just this May, the Rev. Al Sharpton bitterly demanded that Vicente Fox apologize after the Mexican president made what some blacks interpreted as a racist comment. Similarly, many Hispanics say they are treated in racist ways by blacks, some of whom have apparently singled out undocumented immigrants for robbery and worse.

The conflict is growing, as mainly Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, pour into neighborhoods that were in many cases previously dominated by blacks.

Many blacks say Hispanics generally will not hire blacks in their businesses, even though many cater to black customers. Many Hispanics say they are being targeted for robbery by blacks who pick on undocumented workers, a group far less likely to report crimes to police. Both groups worry about the implications of blacks' 2002 displacement as the largest minority in America for the first time in history.

Nicolás Vaca, author of The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What it Means for America, said black radio talk show hosts have been hot to discuss his 2004 book. "Most thought that it was time that someone spoke about the elephant in the room," Vaca told the Intelligence Report.

The elephant reappeared in the halls of Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles this April 14. A minor spat exploded into a lunchtime melée involving about 50 Latino and 50 black students. Four days later, police were sent in for a second time, this time to quell a battle involving some 200 students. Two students were arrested, four detained, and six hurt in minor ways. One broke a hip. Officials changed school schedules to keep the factions more separated. Metal detectors were installed. A Nation of Islam official offered protection to black students. Mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa even addressed a forum called to discuss the strife, begging parents to "model for these young people black and brown unity."

It didn't happen. Less than a week later, a rumor that a violent Hispanic gang would be exacting retribution from black students the next day coursed through the school district. In the end, an astonishing 51,000 students stayed home.