All across America, tensions are growing between Black Americans and Latinos. The cause of the unpleasantness is the political offensive of the Latino minority and the debate over immigration reform.
Negro radio stations in large American cities receive plenty of calls from listeners anxious about the possible legalization of millions of Latinos. They believe that the newcomers from south-of-the-border will take their jobs and their social assistance funding. Moreover, during the massive demonstrations held in April and May, Latinos "abused" the heritage of the Civil Rights Movement by claiming to be following in the footsteps of the great Negro marches of the 1960s.
- I don't remember any issue firing up our listeners like this one - said Greg Johnson, director of KJLH, the leading "black" broadcaster in Los Angeles.
JOBS EVEN BLACKS DON'T WANT
Local leaders from cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit, where steps have being taken to create grassroots coalitions of Black and Latino groups, also tell of disagreements and a growing animosity.
In March and April there were large-scale riots in a number of California prisons. But the inmates didn't fight the guards, but among themselves. Strictly speaking: Latino gangs battled Black gangs. This has exacerbated the situation in major metropolitan areas, where Black and Latino neighborhoods, controlled by these very gangs, are often separated by just a single street or railway track.
In California, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania there have been major brawls between Blacks and Spanish-speaking students.
There are more grudges, some of which emerged last summer. Both groups accuse one another of racism. Indignation spread across America after Mexican President Vicente Fox said in a speech: "There is no doubt that even dignified Mexican men and women are doing jobs which not even Black people don't want to do in the United States ."
Negro Americans heard nothing but contempt in these words. Fox was late with an apology, which, when finally delivered, was remarkably clumsy.
Mexicans, on the other hand, point to a significant rise in robberies in Latino neighborhoods last year. They say Black gangs have noticed that illegal immigrants, having difficulties opening banking accounts, tend to carry more cash in their pockets or keep more money at home than other Americans. Moreover, out of the fear of the police, they greatly underreport robbery.
COALITION OR WAR
There are about 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States: 80% come from Latin-American countries south of the United States, and 60% of these originate in Mexico.
A portion of Black community leaders support the sweeping immigration reform recently passed by the Senate, which includes measures designed to give undocumented workers a chance for a legal job and, eventually, citizenship (the bill now awaits rough sledding in the House). These leaders dream of "rainbow coalitions" that would unite all racial, ethnic and social minorities, and garner the greatest possible influence over the American political life.
However, it is the opinion of many other Black leaders that the growing Latin-America movement may be to the disadvantage Black Americans. The list of fears is a long one.
Blacks, especially those that are the least educated and with the fewest marketable skills, are afraid that Latino immigrants will push them out of the low-wage labor market. They are also wary that the newly-legalized immigrants would suck up millions of dollars of the federal social assistance, which up to now was directed mostly at them. At stake are, among others, funds for low-rent housing, improvements in public schools, health care funding and food stamps programs.
"Latinos and blacks are at each others' throats in our jails and in our high schools," admits Najee Alli, a black activist from Los Angeles, in The Christian Science Monitor.
Johnny Vaughn, resident of a poor black neighborhood who for 20 years has been working at construction sites, describes the situation for The Christian Science Monitor, "If you drive across this city, you will see 99 percent of all construction is being done by Hispanics.... You will see no African-American males on these sites, and that is a big change. I get angry when I see Latinos doing these jobs instead of just seasonal work, like tending crops as they did a few years ago ."
Vaughn's two sons, both in their twenties, say they can't find work where their father used to, as all the jobs are taken by Latinos.
The problem is that the Negros being replaced with Mexicans at the most laborious and lowest paying jobs, aren't advancing up the social ladder. They don't get to move up to more pleasant, better paid positions that require higher qualifications. So they end up staying home or hanging out in the street.
In the big cities, unemployment among blacks between the ages of 20 and 40-years-old can reach as high as 50%. The younger ones are in the worst situation. In 2004, among black 20-year-olds without a high school diploma, unemployment was 72%. Among whites in the same age group, it was 34%, and among Latinos - only 19%.
"Unfortunately, the stereotype that Blacks are lazy still predominates, and it's very hard for our social group to overcome it," says William Spriggs, an economist from the "Black" Howard University in Washington.
Some Black activists are offended by comparisons between the Latino movement and its massive demonstrations to pressure the authorities - and the 1960s battle for civil rights. For them, Latino claims on the spiritual heritage of Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks smacks of blasphemy.
"The black protesters of the 1960s were citizens of this country, and endured years of slavery, rape, lynching and discrimination before they took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations, " explains Brendon Laster from Howard University in The New York Times .
"I think what they were able to do, the level of organization they were able to pull off, that was phenomenal," Laster said. "But I do think their struggle is, in fundamental ways, very different from ours. We didn't choose to come here; we came here as slaves. And we were denied, even though we were legal citizens, our basic rights. There are still a lot of unresolved issues from the civil rights era. Perhaps we're going to be pushed to the back burner."