Tensions Mounting Between Blacks and Latinos Nationwide

Evidence of a divide between blacks and Hispanics mounting

Days after a brawl at Jefferson High School, parents and students discussed ways to ease tensions between black and Hispanic students.

Sizing up the Elephant
Tensions between blacks and Latinos are certainly not new. They have surfaced in major ways in Miami, where a relatively wealthy class of Cuban exiles has won far more political power than the city's blacks, and Houston, where blacks and Latinos have often been on opposite sides of political races. ("There will be a Libertarian in the White House before there is a black-brown coalition in Houston," Orlando Sanchez, who lost a close 2001 mayoral race to a black candidate, wryly told the Houston Chronicle this spring.) While the recent school conflicts have brought the issue to the fore, some writers have been trying to point it out for years.

In 1992, Jack Miles wrote a long essay about race in Los Angeles for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, "Blacks vs. Browns." He was one of the first to describe competition for jobs, suggesting Hispanics were gaining the upper hand. "America's older black poor and newer brown poor are on a collision course," he wrote.

In 1995, Dallas Morning News columnist Richard Estrada, noting conflicts between blacks and Hispanics over hiring practices at a public hospital, warned of "contentiousness" between the two groups "that seems destined to grow."

And three years after that, a book called Neighborhood Voices chronicled the feelings of black and Latino residents in Northeast Central Durham, N.C., where Hispanic immigration had transformed a formerly black part of the city. Many of the voices from both communities were remarkably bitter in their assessments.

But it was an article in the Charlotte Post, a newspaper in North Carolina that caters to black readers, that may have most starkly described the conflict. Published in March 2001, "When Worlds Collide: Blacks Have Reservations About Influx of Hispanic Immigrants" quoted a whole series of racist comments about Hispanics from blacks in the city. Writer Artellia Burch dispelled in no uncertain terms notions that blacks necessarily felt empathetic toward the struggles of Latinos.

E-mails and letters poured in. Fox News sent a camera crew. Post Publisher Gerald Johnson felt compelled to defend his reporter's story, suggesting it showed that "racism is systemic" and blacks were "no different than anybody else."

That wasn't enough for many. BlackPressUSA.com removed the story from its Web site, saying it didn't condone "stereotyping." Raul Yzaguirre, the president of the National Council of La Raza, called on black leaders to denounce the story "in the strongest possible terms." (Earlier, however, Yzaguirre had co-authored a calmer paper on black-Hispanic relations that concluded that "growing tension between the two communities ... threatens the ability of blacks and Hispanics to develop strong, sustainable coalitions.") Others also attacked the Charlotte Post piece.

None of this surprises Nicolás Vaca, author of The Presumed Alliance.

Early on in his book project, Vaca learned just how controversial the topic of black/brown relations was, and how incendiary. Merely discussing the project with two attorney friends ended a friendship as one stormed out of a restaurant.

"Why dig up dirt, ruffle feathers, destroy the illusion of unbroken unity between Blacks and Latinos, bleeding the colors of the Rainbow Coalition by giving the dreaded gringo the ammunition my former friend told me I was providing?" a dispirited Vaca wrote. "The simple answer is the ethnic landscape has changed."

The Intelligence Report found the same reluctance to discuss the issue. Although the magazine contacted numerous black and brown thinkers and scholars to comment on the matter, virtually none would talk about it publicly.

Robbery, Racism and Reaction
Last summer, in the region around Plainfield, N.J., The New York Times reported that at least 17 Hispanic men were severely beaten by young black men and, in one case, killed. Some black leaders said they believed the attacks were about money, not bias, and there was no consensus among police as to the motive.

But the violence of the attacks seemed excessive, even when money was taken — a classic hallmark of a hate crime rather than simple robbery. "To hit someone with a baseball bat, you have to hate someone," Michael Parenti, chief of the North Plainfield Police Department, told the newspaper. "To beat a guy for a few dollars never made a lot of sense to me. It looked to me like a bias incident."

Unfortunately, available hate crime statistics are not much help in trying to gauge conflict between blacks and Hispanics. While national figures show around 100 black-on-Hispanic hate crimes for each of several recent years, there is virtually no doubt that that number vastly understates the violence. Moreover, the fbi has no similar statistics that would cast light on Hispanic violence against blacks. The most that can be said is that these types of hate crimes seem anecdotally to be rising.

Last September, a similar series of attacks broke out on the streets of Jacksonville, Fla. Again, it was hard to say definitively if robbery or hate was the main motivation for these crimes. What was clear was that in at least 28 different assaults, the perpetrators were black and the 68 victims Hispanic. Two people were murdered, while another eight people were shot but survived their wounds.

The Hispanic community, about 8% of Jacksonville's population, was outraged. The local Spanish-language paper demanded an investigation. A press conference was held, and rumors of Hispanic retribution ran rampant.

A man named Nicolás is one of the victims.

Last fall, Nicolás and his father were robbed by a black man with a gun who walked into the family restaurant they were preparing to open. Nicolás says he's not a racist, but the steady stream of young black men who walk through his parking lot on their way to and from local low-income housing has him concerned. And after the attack on him, once he got past his depression, he bought a handgun.

"There are good morenos [blacks], but there are also some that live off the government, welfare or disability, without working," he says. "The vast majority of morenos are hard workers, but the rest of them want to live for free."

Several hundred miles to the north, Shaneesha, a black student in Tanya Golash-Boza's class on "Race and Ethnic Relations Between Blacks and Hispanics," suffers from some of the same kinds of suspicions, as seen from the other side. She is studying in Chapel Hill at the University of North Carolina, a state Census figures show had a nearly 700% growth in its Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000.

"I've heard that Latinos don't pay taxes, that they're illegal, that they're ignorant, that they'll stab you," Shaneesha says, although she adds that she was brought up to judge individuals on their merits alone. Studying at a university that in just the last few years has seen its support staff go from all-black to about half Latino, Shaneesha also worries about the possibility of economic competition from Hispanics. "As an African American, I can see how it could threaten me."

In Detroit, politicians decided to do something about that.