Blacks vs. Browns

Behind the Los Angeles riot lay a grim economic competition between Latinos and African-Americans, which is intensifying and which poses a stern challenge to U.S. domestic and foreign policy, as well as to sentimental cultural attitudes about immigration
A New Paradigm: Blacks vs. Latinos

FOR ALL THE COMPELLING POWER OF THE WATTS II paradigm, however, for all the relevance of white violence and black rage, something still more powerful was happening, and the Latino population of southern California was at the heart of it. About a month after the riot a friend sent me a copy of an unsigned editorial from a Mexican-American newspaper, La Prensa San Diego, dated May 15. What other Latinos had begun to insinuate, La Prensa angrily spelled out: Blacks were not victims. Latinos were victims. Blacks were perpetrators.

Though confronted with catastrophic destruction of the Latino businesses, which were 60% of the businesses destroyed, major looting by Blacks and by the Central Americans living in the immediate area and a substantial number of Hispanics being killed, shot and/or injured, every major television station was riveted to the concept that the unfolding events could only be understood if viewed in the context of the Black and White experiences. They missed the crucial point: The riots were not carried out against Blacks or Whites, they were carried out against the Latino and Asian communities by the Blacks ! What occurred was a major racial confrontation by the Black community, which now sees its numbers and influence waning.

Faced with nearly a million and a half Latinos taking over the inner city, Blacks revolted, rioted and looted. Whatever measure of power and influence they had pried loose from the White power structure, they now see as being in danger of being transferred to the Latino community. Not only are they losing influence, public offices, and control of the major civil rights mechanisms, they now see themselves being replaced in the pecking order by the Asian community, in this case the Koreans.

The editorial ended by declaring "the established Mexican American communities" to be "the bridge between Black, White, Asian and Latinos." It said, "They will have to bring an end to class, color, and ethnic warfare. To succeed, they will have to do what the Blacks failed to do; incorporate all into the human race and exclude no one."

There was, to put it mildly, little in that editorial to suggest that desperately poor, fifteenth-generation African-Americans might be within their rights to resent sudden, strong, officially tolerated competition from first-generation Latin Americans and Asian-Americans. But La Prensa's anger clearly arose not just from the riot, perhaps not mainly from the riot, but from frustration at television's inability to see Latin Americans as a part of the main action at all.

I don't think that any clear pattern of blacks attacking Latino businesses or Latinos attacking black businesses can be established. Koreans do plainly seem to have been singled out for attack—by some Latinos as well as by many blacks. But state officials believe that at least 30 percent of the approximately four thousand businesses destroyed were Latino-owned. Both "Sotnos Hermanos" and "Black Owned Business" were frail armor even when those labels were honestly applied. As the police re-established control, thousands of arrests were made; more than half of the arrestees were Latinos, but the older, second-generation, law-abiding Mexican-American community resented the lack of differentiation in the label "Latino." This community insisted with some feeling that in the communities it regarded as truly and more or less exclusively its own there had been no rioting. By implication this was the beginning of an anti-immigrant stance within the community.

What counts for more, however, than any incipient struggle between older and newer Latino immigrants is the emerging struggle between Latinos and blacks. La Prensa is right to stress the raw size of the Latino population. The terms of engagement, if we take our cue from the rappers, would seem to be black versus white or black versus Asian. But the Korean population of Los Angeles County is just 150,000, a tiny fraction of the Latino population of 3.3 million. Of the 60,560 people in Koreatown itself, only 26.5 percent are Asian; more than 50 percent are Latino. Blacks are the most oppressed minority, but it matters enormously that whites are no longer a majority. And within the urban geography of Los Angeles, African-Americans seem to me to be competing more directly with Latin Americans than with any other group.

I find paradoxical confirmation for this view in the fact that some of the most responsible leaders in both groups want to head it off. A month after the riot my wife and I received the June newsletter of the Southern California Interfaith Taskforce on Central America, a group to which we have contributed a little money over the past several years. SCITCA, originally a lobby for the victims of state-sponsored violence in (principally) El Salvador and Guatemala, has more recently expanded its agenda to include the fate of Central Americans now settled in Los Angeles. It has effectively lobbied, for example, for a relaxation of the municipal regulation of street vendors.

In the wake of the riot SCITCA was worried about antiimmigrant backlash. Joe Hicks, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Frank Acosta, of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, wrote in the newsletter,

In the aftermath of the recent civil unrest .... Immigrants and refugees in particular have been targeted for blame, violence and civil rights abuses .... Fears of overcrowding, the burden on local communities, competition for scarce jobs, drainage on public resources through the education and social welfare systems are all commonly held apprehensions about the impact of immigrants in our communities. Similar fears were voiced during the migration of African-Americans from the south to the northern cities earlier this century. In the past few years, however, a growing number of social scientists, economists and researchers have concluded that the social and economic impact of immigration is overwhelmingly positive. By and large, it is the prospect of freedom and economic opportunity, not welfare, that draws immigrants to the state.

Hicks and Acosta were astute to recognize that the movement of millions of blacks from the rural South to the urban North was a migration as enormous as any from abroad, but the fate of those black immigrants and the cities that received them rather subverts the lesson the two writers want to draw. And alongside the recent, proimmigration literature that the two cite is a small but growing body of even more recent literature suggesting that whether we will it or not, America's older black poor and newer brown poor are on a collision course.

A married couple, both white, both psychiatric social workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, recently told us of several monolingual school social workers who had been let go to make room for bilingual workers. With so many Spanish-speakers in the district, the rationale for requiring social workers to have a knowledge of Spanish is clear. Our friends have, in fact, been diligently studying the language to protect their own positions. And yet it struck them as tragically shortsighted that most of the dismissed social workers were black.

A member of our church administers a subsidized daycare center in northwest Pasadena, once a black neighborhood, now, like South Central Los Angeles, an extremely overcrowded black and Latino neighborhood. Black welfare mothers, our friend reports, are increasingly turned away from the center, because on the neediestfirst principle they no longer qualify. Latino mothers, often with more children than the blacks and with no income even from welfare, are needier, and claim a growing share of the available places. Are the Latino mothers illegal? Are they just iII-equipped to apply for welfare? The kindly day-care people don't ask.

Hicks and Acosta exhort: "The poor communities of Los Angeles cannot get caught up fighting over the peanuts that have been given to them by the economic, political and educational institutions of America." But even if these communities make common political cause, do they have any choice about economic competition? The General Accounting Office reports that janitorial firms serving downtown Los Angeles have almost entirely replaced their unionized black work force with nonunionized immigrants.

If you live here, you don't need the General Accounting Office to bring you the news. The almost total absence of black gardeners, busboys, chambermaids, nannies, janitors, and construction workers in a city with a notoriously large pool of unemployed, unskilled black people leaps to the eye. According to the U.S. Census, 8.6 percent of South Central Los Angeles residents sixteen years old and older were unemployed in 1990, but an additional 41.8 percent were listed as "not in the labor force." If the Latinos were not around to do that work, nonblack employers would be forced to hire blacks—but they'd rather not. They trust Latinos. They fear or disdain blacks. The result is unofficial but widespread preferential hiring of Latinos—the largest affirmative-action program in the nation, and one paid for, in effect, by blacks.

Pierre Venant, a French photographer of international reputation, made the acquaintance of Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit who until recently worked in a part of the barrio so badly wracked by gang violence that funerals are held almost weekly. Out of a desire to help Father Boyle, Venant began teaching photography in the barrio and photographing gang members and their sometimes exceedingly elaborate, mural-sized, almost liturgical graffiti. I asked him once whether he had ever considered teaching in the black ghetto. He answered no, that there was something so nihilistic, so utterly alienated, in the black youths he had met that he doubted he could make a connection with them. He was apologetic but plain: it was just easier with the Mexicans. "Maybe it is the Catholicism," he said, "or something in the Latin personality."

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