October 20, 2006

We Have to Live Together’

Last of a Six-Part Series
By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz
New America Media

EDITOR’S NOTE: Organizers see a symbiotic relationship between blacks and Latinos as the wave of the future. Politicians and institutions are seeing that too. This is the last of a six-part series on the role of longtime black and Latino community leaders in building interethnic tolerance in South Los Angeles, which has been suddenly transformed by the massive influx of Latinos. The work of people like them across the country will be crucial in developing Americans’ ability to “get along” as immigration dramatically changes the nation.

SOUTH LOS ANGELES—Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Aurea Montes-Rodriguez of the Community Coalition often bump into the Watts/Century Latino Organization’s Arturo Ybarra and other South L.A. activists in meetings of the city’s organizers.

Their extensive network was key to the black-brown united front that swept Antonio Villa-raigosa into the mayor’s office. They’re aware of the potential for conflict in their communities and leery of any attempts to drive wedges among them, especially as the national debate over immigration reform heats up.

“I don’t want to hear whose turn it is now or who’s taking my job,” scowled Tim Watkins of the Watts Community Labor Action Committee (WCLAC). “Why should we fight over crumbs?”

Such resolve is often tested.

A controversy has engulfed the King/Drew Medical Center in Willowbrook near Watts, which was built after the 1965 riot to serve the black community.

Complaints of substandard care and mismanagement led county supervisors to shut down the hospital’s trauma unit, the second busiest trauma center in L.A. County. The hospital may lose $200 million in federal funds, which is half its budget.

The South L.A. community groups, often meeting at WL-CAC, rallied against the closure, likening it to throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Their worry was basic—thousands of African American and Latino residents have no quick access to emergency care.

DISCREPANCY

The activists’ collective response, however, overshadows a discrepancy some political quarters had tried to exploit before — that the largely black-staffed hospital is now serving a largely Latino patient base. Of the hospital’s 2,700 employees, 60 percent are black. While Watts is now 60 percent Latino, only 18 percent of the hospital staff is.

There were previous complaints of tension over hiring, of Latinos demanding more positions and blacks resenting the Latinization of an institution they had founded. Some critics of politicians who defend the hospital have been quick to hurl accusations of “black racism.”

However, community leaders who are familiar with this type of racial minefield can see both sides and know not to be quick on the trigger. In fact, such quandaries only highlight the need for closer collaboration.

“Blacks have more support institutions because they’ve struggled for years,” says Ybarra. Latinos in South L.A., he says, may have few options, but blacks, increasingly, have even fewer. “As their numbers shrink due to out-migration, their traditional structures will need to serve more Latinos to remain viable,” he predicts.

AWARENESS OF NEW REALITY

National black politicians are aware of the changed political landscape, with Latinos now constituting the nation’s largest minority group.

As a result, the Congressional Black Caucus has carefully maintained an alliance with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In the recent vote on the Sensenbrenner bill, which tried to make undocumented immigration a felony, only one Black Caucus member, a conservative, voted for the proposal.

Black Caucus member Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who has a large Latino constituency in her Texas district, pushed in vain for the most liberal immigration reform bill on Capitol Hill.

Traditionally black colleges, too, are adapting to the demographic trend by actively enrolling Latino students as part of their long-term business strategy. Schools like Howard University and Morehouse College are hiring Latino recruiters and setting up special scholarships for Latinos.

Latinos in turn need blacks. They’re not yet as organized and their political clout has yet to fully emerge because immigrants are diverted by the day-to-day struggle for survival and stability. Many feel vulnerable for lack of legal status.

Latinos need the political energy, experience and structures of the black community as bolsters to their own attempts at political power.

Such are the realities the two communities must manage and negotiate. The task becomes more pressing as the national discourse on immigration escalates to a shouting match tainted with nativism and racism.

Relations between African Americans and Latinos are being handled as fragile by many leaders in both communities, again testing activists’ resolve in evading political and cultural trip-wires.

But talk of black-brown conflict has actually brought increased sensitivity to the danger of communal strife. Mayor Villaraigosa has intervened in some schoolyard brawls, wary of any triggers for racial violence. And there will be many instances worthy of vigilance.

After the shocking July triple-killing of Latinos in South L.A., community leaders quickly organized a “Black & Brown Unity Walk” to defuse any emerging racial tension.

“We have a lot of friends who are African Americans,” Miguel Marcial, a cousin of one the victims, told the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve lived here for 25 years and our families have never experienced anything like this.”

The unity walk brings sobriety in a place that needs peace, Marcial said. “We’re neighbors. We have to live together.”

Rene Ciria-Cruz wrote this story as a Racial Justice Fellow of the USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism.

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