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A New Mission for Rights Groups

July 21, 2002|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

The Latino civil rights establishment suffered a major setback last month when a panel of three federal judges unanimously dismissed a voting-rights suit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The judges found that ''California's political system is far from closed to Latinos" and that the contemporary record painted a ''far more encouraging picture of racial voting attitudes" than it did a decade ago.

This ruling is not only a milestone in Mexican American history, it also opens up an opportunity for ethnic Mexican organizations--and the mainstream foundations and corporations that fund them--to shift their priorities. If, as the judges imply, anti-Latino political discrimination is easing, full-time advocacy is unnecessary. Instead, more ethnic institutional energy should be directed toward providing aid to Latinos, particularly immigrants, in need. By creating a statewide clearinghouse for ethnically targeted charity, California's Mexican American activists can capitalize on their successful rights advocacy and preserve their relevance in an era of growing Latino political power.

Historically, ethnically based organizations served two purposes: self-defense and self-help. In the days after slavery, freed blacks formed organizations to defend their rights and provide economic relief. During the great immigration wave at the turn of the 20th century, scores of ethnic groups, including Mexican, depended upon the services of mutual-aid societies. By the 1920s, many ethnic agencies offered their clients everything from employment services and relief benefits to day care and burial. Mutual-aid societies also provided legal assistance, particularly to immigrant Mexicans suffering from a virulent anti-Mexican backlash after World War I.

Many of these ethnic-aid societies collapsed during the Great Depression, and the Roosevelt administration's subsequent New Deal supplanted their reason for existing: The federal government began assuming the welfare burdens. Jewish organizations have been the chief exception. Today, there are approximately 4,000 Jewish philanthropic funds with roughly $10 billion in assets.

Through the years, ethnic Mexican organizations also became increasingly dominated by native-born Mexican Americans rather than immigrants. In contrast to their predecessors, which stressed cooperation between immigrants and Mexican Americans, the post-New Deal voluntary associations tended to exclude noncitizens from membership.

The three most prominent contemporary Latino organizations were founded circa 1970, when immigrants represented the lowest percentage of the U.S. population in the nation's history and when Mexican Americans were overwhelmingly U.S.-born. Modeled after existing African American groups, MALDEF, the National Council of La Raza and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project were all formed when major philanthropic foundations were abandoning their old mission of building institutions in favor of challenging existing ones. None of the three was designed to provide constituency services.

This is not exceptional. It has been a century since these foundations got out of the charity business. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller believed that philanthropy should identify root causes of problems and sponsor systemic change. Accordingly, most large foundations today seek to resolve entrenched social problems using ''theories of change" and ''logic models." They shy away from supporting direct services to the needy, preferring instead to bring about high-level changes in the courts and state capitols.

A quarter of a century of massive immigration into the U.S., coupled with a decisive change in the demographics of poverty, has not changed this outlook. Recently, the Pew Charitable Trusts considered creating yet another national Latino advocacy group before deciding on a Latino research center.

But Sept. 11 has helped to restore the social value of the handout. A few foundations sought to protect low-wage workers near the damaged sites or safeguard the rights of immigrants. But the overwhelming need was for straightforward aid to the families of victims.

It is precisely this kind of Victorian-era charity Latino organizations should take up. Ideology aside, sometimes a handout is a hand up. The group most vulnerable to the whims of the economy, contemporary immigrants, could benefit from direct help as did newcomers a century ago. Emergency or medical relief, widow's insurance, tuition and burial assistance are just a few kinds of grants that would be helpful.

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