Tensions Mounting Between Blacks and Latinos Nationwide

Evidence of a divide between blacks and Hispanics mounting

Bruised feelings were eased during the Los Angeles mayoral election when black leaders like Earvin 'Magic' Johnson (at podium) endorsed Antonio Villaraigosa.
(AP Wide World Photos)

African Town
"The issue of immigration is roiling within Black communities and has the potential to soon become a divisive issue of historic proportions," says Claud Anderson, president of the black think tank Harvest Institute and one who does not shy away from expressing disdain for Latinos. In a January 2004 report, Anderson claimed that Hispanic immigrants come to this country for the "public service benefits available to them because of the Black Civil Rights Movement."

Anderson says these Latinos invade black neighborhoods, and then use language and culture as barriers to economic integration. "Immigrants operate their businesses in Black communities, but they will not buy from black businesses and they rarely hire blacks as employees," Anderson writes. For him, these Hispanics are deliberately trying to "push blacks off the upward ladder of success."

Claud Anderson even has a conspiracy theory, claiming that the National Hispanic Party — a party no one else seems to have heard of — "declared a population war on Black Americans in the early 1970s at a mid-west meeting and crafted plans to numerically surpass and supplant Black Americans by the year 2000."

No matter that Anderson sounds like a racist.

No matter that he openly advocates racial discrimination.

To many Detroit politicians, Anderson is the man with a plan. Last year, a majority of the city council commissioned a $112,000 economic development study from Anderson. His recommendation was that the city spend $30 million to develop something called "African Town" — an inner-city business enclave created for blacks that would keep them from spending money in immigrant businesses.

Anderson and others argued that the city had provided incentives to Mexicantown and Greektown, two neighborhoods marked by ethnic businesses and restaurants. Why shouldn't it do the same for black businesses? After all, blacks made up 86% of Detroit's population, and black business needed help. Anderson went further. Hispanics, he said in the kind of comment that lit up many citizens of Detroit, "have surpassed Blacks now and made them third-class citizens."

In July 2004, the City Council passed a resolution approving African Town and the $30 million in casino revenues that it planned to disburse as grants and low-interest loans to "historically depressed documented residents of Detroit who are members of the city's majority under-served population" — blacks, in other words.

The blacks-only funding plan outraged many.

Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley wrote that the Harvest Institute report "mimics the language of the most fascist, right-wing anti-immigration groups, with headings like "A Majority Should Dominate and Act Like a Majority," and segments that warn of the dangers of Hispanics gaining a political voice. It could have been read on the public squares of Berlin in 1934 or on the Capitol steps of Birmingham, Ala., in 1964." L. Brooks Patterson, an elected official from a neighboring county, told a reporter that African Town was "one of the dumbest ideas I've ever heard about and frankly insulting. How would residents of Detroit feel if I were to propose a Honky Town in [my county]? I would be run out of office, and rightfully so."

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is African-American, vetoed African Town last fall. But the council overrode his veto, although it did ultimately strike the requirement that all African Town subsidies be limited to black applicants.

Unity, Politics and Progress
Nicolás Vaca devoted an entire chapter of his book to the 2001 mayoral race in Los Angeles, which pitted James Hahn, son of a well-known white politician who had very strong ties to the black community, against Antonio Villaraigosa, who was a relative newcomer. Hahn boasted endorsements from Earvin "Magic" Johnson, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and other important black figures — along with the support of the much more conservative white business community.

Hahn's black support sunk Villaraigosa. Hahn won with 59% of the overall vote — and a remarkable 80% of the votes from the black community.

It was a different story this year. In his first term, Hahn had fired popular Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks, who is black. Many black leaders felt that Hahn had ignored them, and Johnson, Waters and others who supported Hahn the first time around now threw their support to Villaraigosa. For his part, Villaraigosa worked to build up his ties to black voters. Time after time, he stressed that blacks and Latinos had more to gain by working together than against one another.

It worked. On May 17, Villaraigosa became the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in a century by a 17-point margin. He did it with half the city's black votes.

Much divides blacks and Latinos in America. The most recent figures show that median net worth for Hispanic households is $7,932 — almost $2,000 more than the $5,998 median for blacks. But when compared to whites — who, at $88,651, own more than 10 times either amount — the difference pales into insignificance.

The same could be said about many social issues that divide the black and Hispanic communities of the United States. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black Pacifica News Service commentator who wrote a radio editorial about the racial conflicts at Los Angeles' Jefferson High School this spring, may have said it best. "A couple of days after the Jefferson High clash, several hundred black and Latino parents and students held an anti-violence forum at the school," Hutchinson said. "Speaker after speaker denounced the fighting and pledged to work for peace. The hard truth, though, is that blacks and Latinos are undergoing a painful period of adjustment. They will find the struggle for power and recognition to be long and difficult. The parents and students who pledged to work for peace made an important start."