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Commentary

Do the Math--Latinos Are Gaining Power

March 15, 2001|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Disappearance of Black Leadership" (Middle Passage Press, 2000). E-mail: EHutchi344@aol.com

The preliminary report from the 2000 census showing that Latinos may have replaced blacks as the largest minority in the United States poses fresh challenges to ethnic relations in California and elsewhere. Black and Latino leaders have long papered over the conflicts between the two groups by showing a happy public face of blacks and Latinos marching shoulder to shoulder to do battle against the twin afflictions of race discrimination and poverty. The surge in Latino numbers may put frowns on a lot of these faces.

Friction has been on the rise as Latinos have prospered in the professions and business and have deepened their influence within the Democratic and Republican parties. Inter-ethnic tremors also have ignited brawls between black and Latino students at some Los Angeles high schools and deadly clashes between black and Latino inmates at L.A. County jails and state prisons. Yet looming even larger than these conflicts are the hot-button issues of jobs, politics and education.

When it comes to jobs, the first warning that many blacks were feeling threatened by swelling Latino immigration was the battle over Proposition 187 in 1994. California voters approved the measure, which would have denied public services to immigrants, by a huge margin. One would not expect blacks to have supported such a measure against a fellow minority group, yet they did, by a thin majority. Why?

It seems obvious that blacks were afraid that Latinos might bump blacks from low-skilled jobs. This would even further marginalize the black poor by raising joblessness, decreasing benefits and exacerbating the crime and drug crisis in poor black neighborhoods.

There is no conclusive evidence that Latinos actually would take jobs away from poor blacks, and Latino leaders correctly point out that racial discrimination and lack of job skills, training and education are the major causes of the high rates of both black and Latino unemployment. Yet there is a danger that a severe economic downturn could dump many Latino and black workers on the streets, thus heightening the competition and tension between them for the shrinking number of low-end jobs.

In the political arena, Latinos also are gaining over blacks. During the past presidential campaign, Democrat and Republican strategists were delirious at the prospect of bagging a sizable number of Latino voters in the elections. There was a good reason why. Latinos make up about 5% of the vote nationally, and their voter numbers are growing.

The largest numbers of Latino voters are in California, Florida, Texas and New York--key electoral states that can determine who sits in the White House and what party controls Congress. The ranks of Latino voters are also big and getting bigger in 10 other states. But the spectacular rise in Latino political power is nowhere more evident than in California, where there now are more than 2 million Latino voters, a number that will soar to 3 million by the 2002 mid-term national elections.

While both parties scramble to garner Latino votes, some black politicians and leaders openly worry that this could further dilute their political power. When the state Legislature met in 1996, there were 10 black state representatives. By 2000, that number had dipped to six. Meanwhile, Latinos now hold almost one-fourth of the seats in the Legislature and some of the most visible positions in state government, including the lieutenant governor post.

Education is another arena of competition. Latino and black students now make up the majority of students in the nation's big city schools, many of which are saddled with poor teachers, overcrowded classrooms and shortages of books, learning materials and computers. Too often, blacks and Latinos blame each other for these conditions and for poor student performance.

A better approach would be for everyone to see that inner-city schools stagnate not because poor blacks are chronic underachievers or because Latinos drain scarce resources. Both blacks and Latinos suffer because of the racially warped over-funding of white middle-class suburban schools; the under-funding of poor, urban school districts; the lack of uniform testing standards; and the refusal of many school districts to hold teachers and administrators rigidly accountable for student performance.

Latinos will eventually officially replace blacks as the dominant minority in the United States. But bigger census numbers won't make the problems of discrimination, poverty, failing schools, police abuse, drugs, gang violence and political underrepresentation--problems that deeply affect both groups--disappear. Blaming each other won't help either.

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