- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006


Rumors of racial hatred swirled around the small farm town of Tifton, Ga., last fall after four blacks were arrested in the deadly robberies of six Mexican immigrants. In a single night at different trailer parks, the men were shot and beaten to death with a baseball bat as they slept.

Community leaders — the white police chief, the Hispanic priest of the Roman Catholic church, the local president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — quickly stepped in to maintain peace. They called these crimes of opportunity, saying theft, not racism, was behind them. Still, they conceded the community was far from integrated.

“We’ve just never been friends and buddies,” said Isabella Brooks, the president of the NAACP in Colquitt County, near Tifton. She said she has no white neighbors and doesn’t socialize with the Hispanics up the street because of the language barrier.

The nation’s two largest minority groups are sorting out whether their relations will be driven by competition and mistrust or a common bond, a joint effort to close persistent gaps between whites and minorities. In no region is the tension more clear than in the South.

“The Hispanic presence changes the dynamic of the South, which has always been viewed as white and black,” said William Ferris of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina.

Advocacy groups from the NAACP to the National Council of La Raza argue that Hispanics, especially immigrants struggling for legislative reform, find the perfect ally and model in blacks and their history of fighting for equal rights.

Hispanics have passed blacks as the largest U.S. minority group at 14.5 percent of the population compared with blacks at 12.1 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

Although blacks are still more numerous in the Southeast, except for Florida, a rush of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries is changing racial interaction across the region. Several Southern states now lead the nation in the growth of Hispanic residents and illegal aliens.

In places such as Houston and Los Angeles, where blacks and Hispanics have long lived side by side, the two groups most often fight for jobs, notably low-income jobs that often were held by unskilled black workers.

A Pew Research Center poll in April showed that more blacks than whites said they or a family member had lost a job or never got it because an employer hired an immigrant worker.

Census figures show that across 11 Southern states, foreign-born Hispanics have a substantially lower unemployment rate than blacks — less than 5 percent, compared with more than 9 percent for blacks in 2004 — and earn more; their median household income of $33,765 last year was nearly 10 percent higher than that of blacks.

Further, research has found that blacks feel threatened beyond the workplace by the influx of Hispanics in the South. Of the three metropolitan areas with booming immigrant populations surveyed in a study related to the Pew poll, it’s only in the Southern one — Raleigh-Durham, N.C. — that a solid majority of blacks favor cutting back on legal immigration.

Some say it’s precisely because of the history of strained race relations in the South, where institutional segregation was painfully dismantled, that the region can help integrate another community into the American mainstream.

“There’s a very natural linkage between the African-American and the Hispanic communities,” said NAACP President Bruce Gordon. “There’s a conscious effort to create animosity between African-Americans and Hispanics that takes our eye off the ball. There’s an advantage to coalition, and we should find a way to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Angela Arboleda of La Raza agrees, though she notes that black leaders have not always embraced the notion of solidarity among minorities, citing as an example New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s comment that he feared that city would be “overrun by Mexican workers” during reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina.

In Georgia — home to many black leaders, one of the fastest-growing illegal-alien populations and some of the nation’s most stringent immigration laws — the growing pains in the developing black-Hispanic relationship have been acute.

Both blacks and whites “are waiting to see if Latinos will define themselves as black or white,” said Dana White, a professor at Emory University who has written about the South.

Some argue that rather than joining a coalition of minorities Hispanics will close ranks with white Americans and further marginalize blacks.

In 2001, black Georgia lawmakers fought legislation making Hispanic businesses eligible for a state program designed to bolster minority enterprises, arguing that it would weaken the state’s goal of helping black businesses.

In April, however, some black leaders spoke of a shared cause against discrimination at a pro-immigration rally in Atlanta that drew 50,000 people. It was in a majority-black county just outside Atlanta that Georgia’s first bilingual public school, Unidos Dual Language Charter School, opened in August.

Yolanda Hood, who is black, enrolled her 5-year-old son in the school even though some relatives feared his English could be compromised.

“We’re more sensitive to the plight of Hispanics just because we dealt with so many prejudices,” she said, explaining that her own educational experience influenced her decision. “I went to a predominantly black school, then a predominantly white college and it was a shock to me. I didn’t want my son to have that.”

Overcoming mistrust and misunderstandings will take time, analysts say.

After the attacks in Tifton, even though they were not officially termed hate crimes, the Justice Department sent peacemakers to ease tensions, and police stepped up patrols to quell rumors of blacks terrorizing Hispanic neighborhoods.

“Sometimes I think it was some kind of racism,” said Tereso Rodriguez, who was assaulted by a black man shortly before the deadly attacks. “I met a man with his jaw and teeth taken out. If it were only stealing, there’d be no need to hit us so much.”

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