- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Ever since the Census Bureau announced last summer that Latinos had surpassed blacks as the country’s largest minority, members of both groups have been trying to figure out what to make of it.

Blacks made up 13.1 percent of the population in 2002 and Hispanics 13.4 percent. Both groups are growing, but Latinos, boosted by high immigration rates, are growing faster. So are a salad bowl of other races and ethnicities, smaller than blacks or Latinos, but many growing faster.

By midcentury, demographers project the entire country’s population could become like California’s, in which the census says minorities became the majority in 1999.

These population trends energize black conversations, spilling over to the Internet and talk radio shows with chatter about whether the shift foreshadows a decline in black influence or whether the groups have enough in common to build working alliances around anything more than shared grievances.

More apparent in news media, which tend to be drawn more readily to friction than friendliness, are the points of interethnic conflict — political turf battles in New York City, school board feuds in Houston, employment arguments in Miami, Latino (among others) discrimination complaints against black-run Martin Luther King Hospital in Los Angeles, etc., etc.

Attracting much less attention are the countless encounters, interactions and intermarriages that take place every day as blacks and Latinos, among others in our national stir-fry, live and work side-by-side in urban and rural areas, each offering some visual encouragement for the appealing but misleading notion that the two groups are natural allies, a “rainbow coalition,” despite significant differences.

I know as an African-American, for example, how much we black folks are reluctant to form coalitions with other groups because we tend to view our historical experiences as unique. Many owe this, as black scholar Dr. Cornel West has said, “to the unprecedented levels of unregulated and unrestrained violence” directed at us.

This perspective makes it difficult for us to accept how much Latinos and other ethnic groups rising to prominence view African-Americans as far more empowered than we tend to think we are. When the immigration issue rises in a hostile way, for example, reminding Mexicans and Central Americans of their vulnerabilities, African-Americans are often on the other side, expressing fears rooted in their own perceived vulnerabilities.

A new book, “The Presumed Alliance” (Rayo/HarperCollins), by Nicolas C. Vaca, explores these conflicting perceptions with refreshing candor, demythologizing the idealized concept of the “rainbow coalition” and calls on both groups to reintroduce themselves to each other.

“The book does not argue that you can’t have coalitions, but you have to examine situations to see that those conditions exist,” Mr. Vaca, a Harvard-educated lawyer and Berkeley-educated sociologist, told me in a telephone interview. “It is very important that those groups come together with a sense of an equal basis and formulate what they want from each other, not necessarily to maintain a permanent alliance, but to support each other in their respective goals.”

Racial profiling offers an example of such a case-by-case coalition-building. In its first statewide compilation of racial data on traffic stops, Texas last week reported black motorists are 31/2 times more likely to be searched than white Anglos, and Latino drivers are 2.4 times more likely. Among the leading groups that commissioned the study were branches of the Texas National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the League of United Latino American Citizens.

Since former Rep. Kweise Mfume, Maryland Democrat, became NAACP president in 1996, he has made a priority of outreach to Latinos and other nonwhites, noting in speeches that “colored people come in all colors.”

“One of the hardest things for us to get over is the assumption that this is an all-black organization concerned only with all-black issues,” he told me. “We’re changing because we see America is changing. Increasingly this is a nation of color, facing many of the same problems and challenges that we are as an organization.”

If there is a gathering dialogue around black-Latino relations, as Mr. Mfume hopes, it is an extension of age-old encounters between new ethnic groups and old ones in a country of immigrants.

But it also reflects a new racial paradigm for the new century. In the 1960s, race relations were a national issue. In recent decades, it has become a local issue.

Blacks, Latinos and others get along as groups more productively in some towns and neighborhoods than in others. We can never safely presume an alliance, as Mr. Vaca’s book title suggests, between any two groups.

But incidents of successful intergroup cooperation confirm the durability of an old observation that our various groups have more in common than we have in conflict. We are all Americans. With patience and mutual respect, we can work together on issues we have in common and use that common ground as a platform on which to work out our differences.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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