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
The Comfort Factor

I AM AFRAID THAT QUIET CHOICES LIKE VENANT'S have by now been made so many thousands of times in Los Angeles that, at least to Anglos, Latinos, even when they are foreign, seem native and safe, while blacks, who are native, seem foreign and dangerous. In saying this, I am saying something that I shrink from saying and grieve to say, but I think it's true. As a graduate student at Harvard, I shared an apartment with a Nigerian, and I learned to measure by the ease and speed of my rapport with him, despite immense cultural differences (he had been raised in a polygamous family), how deep an estrangement separated me from African-Americans. For a time I helped to administer Harvard's Big Brothers program, which teamed freshmen, almost always white, with fatherless boys, almost always black, from the Columbia Point Housing Project. I spent a lot of time during that period with black people, and this in the 1960s, when interracial hope and good will were at flood tide. But in the end I felt that even with me they were prepared at every moment, at every single moment, for the worst—braced, as it were, for a blow. This is what slavery has done to us as a people, and I can scarcely think of it without tears.

Every other week since the riot a team made up of parishioners from my church, St. Edmund's, in San Marino, and from St. Martin's, in Compton, has distributed food to needy people in Compton. One of the albums of the rap group N.W.A. (the name stands for "Niggers With Attitude") is titled "Straight Outta Compton." Compton, a town in the South Central area of greater Los Angeles, has replaced Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood, as a byword for black anger, and not just because of that album. But the people we see meekly filing past for their shopping bags of free food are more often old than young and, to my eyes, more weary than angry. Black writers since .at least Richard Wright's day have noted with bitterness how white America smiles on cute black children and the benign black elderly, while the prime-of-life adults of the black community and, above all, its young males are objects of white dread. Times have changed, at least some: Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy—if not niggers with attitude, then undeniably African-Americans with panache-would have been inconceivable in Wright's day. And yet I still caught myself being surprised—and then chagrined at my surprise—to see how frail some of our "customers" were. I was particularly struck by an old, bent black man wearing a bright green DAY LABORERS' UNION windbreaker. He wasn't up for much in the way of day labor, but when he had been young and strong, had he been a union man? What had happened to his union? And to his hopes? These are the black people nobody but other black people ever really sees and nobody but other black people ever stops to think about.

And yet...

My wife and I sold the trailer in 1986 and bought a small house in an unincorporated chunk of Los Angeles County, adjacent to Pasadena on the east. Of twenty households on our block, one is Asian (Chinese), two African-American, and one Latino (he is Puerto Rican, she is Mexican). None of the houses on the block is large enough to accommodate live-in help, but several of us do employ gardeners. All the gardeners are Latino, and when a slight brown man walks down a driveway, he is understood to be there for good reason. Were a tail black man to do the same, there is not one of us who would not immediately be on the qui vive. My sadness about the American estrangement just mentioned doesn't make me act any differently at such a moment.

Black men complain that they cannot shop without being shadowed by a suspicious shopkeeper. The same in effect goes for the black teenagers who show up unannounced on our block. These are kids who skip out of the junior high school in the next block, picnic on our lawns, steal from our garages and back yards, and occasionally vandalize parked cars. The retirees living on the block watch the kids especially closely. One retiree once managed to videotape an attempted garage break-in. The school's officials—not always sympathetic (until recently the principal was a black woman)—-identified the culprits from the tape.

We, who live peacefully with the black families on our block, are afraid of these black kids. I contrast our attitude toward them with the attitude taken in neighboring Sierra Madre, almost completely white and Republican, toward a group of as many as twenty Latino men who gather each morning except Sunday in a park near the fire department. They are day laborers, the poorest of the poor, awaiting work. In principle (and especially toward the demoralizing end of a day when no one has hired them), they ought to be desperate, but they are in the main clean, quiet, mannerly, polite to the residents, and agreeably fraternal with one another. This very conservarive, old-fashioned community tolerates their presence calmly.

Whether or not Latinos are completely trustworthy (I have already mentioned the bloody barrio gang wars), I think that they do enjoy the trust or Anglos and Asians in Los Angeles. In the yard, in the house, with the baby, in the hotel room or the hotel corridor, in the parking garage, in a hundred locations, work, however menial, creates a vulnerability and thereby a brief intimacy between server and served. In all these places the average white or Asian Angeleno prefers to have—and usually does have—a Latino rather than an African-American doing the work. Whence at least some of the disorientation and diffuse anxiety at the television footage of rioting Latinos: Had that young man dashing out of the liquor store been in your back yard earlier in the week? Was that woman trundling a shopping cart of looted groceries out of the supermarket your neighbor's live-out? ("Liveout" is Angeleno for a domestic servant who works for you five or six days a week, all day, but doesn't sleep over.)

I do not discount, as I mention this "comfort factor," that inexperienced Latino noncitizens may be much easier to exploit than experienced black citizens. Ricky was hired at less than the minimum wage to do city-wall plastering on Santa Monica condominiums that sold for more than $ 1 million each. The contractor trained him on the job. Ricky learns quickly, and his by then confident bilingualism was a major plus for his employer. He was promised a "real" job after this unofficial apprenticeship ended, but no such job ever materialized. His brother Victor, who owns a car, worked briefly for a messenger service. He was required to use his own car. No mileage, insurance, or fuel costs were paid by his employer. He was paid by the mile only when actually delivering a package, but was required to keep himself available for an assignment even when none was forthcoming. The Latinos I know think that Asians are particularly likely to cheat and brutalize their Latino employees in ways like these.

And I do not mean, either, to sanctify Latinos at the expense of blacks. Victor called me as I was writing this article to report that Miguel, "Mike," the youngest brother in the family, was about to get out of jail. Ricky is also in jail as I write, and one of his earlier criminal ventures began with my wife. Near the end of Ricky's senior year his mother told me that he was dejected because he couldn't afford to attend the prom: no car and no money to rent a tux. I said I would rent the tux for him. My wife, who had just bought a used Honda and hadn't yet sold her 1969 Volkswagen, agreed to lend him the VW for the occasion. He had a good time at the prom but didn't return the car for two days. Graduation came a few weeks later. (The commencement speaker was State Senator Art Torres, whose remarks were all about Latino progress, but when the awards were given out, the few Asians in the student body won them all.) By custom, on the day after graduation local high school seniors head for Magic Mountain, an amusement park. Ricky asked to borrow the car again. We were already planning to sell it to him and let him pay us in installments from his first job. He was prematurely developing a proprietory attitude toward it. My wife had a premonition. I overrode it. He stole the car and skipped town.

The odd consequence of this episode was an intensification of my relationship with Ricky's family, especially his mother. The police, once they knew the car had been "borrowed for keeps," wouldn't list it as stolen. But if I couldn't call it stolen, I couldn't get it off my insurance policy. I had to gamble that if Ricky's ties to us were breakable, his ties to his family were not. It worked. Ricky eventually returned the car, and afterward even paid us $ 250 for it—less than it was worth but, given his resources, a meaningful gesture.

By that time we had a new baby in the house, and we lost touch with the Rodriguez family—until a few years later, when Victor called to invite us to his wedding. Ricky, who had been working as a house painter near Sacramento, was back in Los Angeles, nattily dressed and doing well, it seemed, as a salesman in a car dealership. Victor spoke of him with a kind of relief. But some months after the wedding Ricky and Victor's sister Elena called to ask, on behalf of their mother, if I would stand bail. Ricky had been stopped on a traffic charge, and a computer check showed that he was wanted for parole violation in the north. I declined, but later, on a trip to Sacramento, I visited him in the minimum-security jail where he was serving his sentence. ) learned then that during his first northern period he had become a father. The child, a boy, was being raised by its mother and her parents, Anglos with whom Ricky claimed to be on friendly terms, though clearly all contact had been lost. After his release from jail Ricky moved in with Victor, Victor's wife, and their new baby, but within weeks he had been arrested again, this time on a drug charge. When Victor called about Mike, he said that Ricky, too, would be out in a month or two.

Sometimes, as I have reflected on our checkered tenyear friendship with the Rodriguez family, I have wondered whether Latinos do not have a better local reputation, and blacks a worse one, than each deserves. But how much difference does reputation ultimately make? True, walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles, I do not expect to be panhandled or shaken down (the two grow increasingly similar) by Latinos; I do fear that from blacks. True, I am wary of black men and generally nonchalant with Latinos. I think my attitudes are typical. And yet, all that aside, if there were no Latinos—and no other immigrants—around to do all the work that is to be done in Los Angeles, would blacks not be hired to do it? I think they would be. Wages might have to be raised. Friction might be acute for a while. But in the end the work would go looking for available workers.

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