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Tensions Between Blacks and Latino Immigrants

Tensions Between Blacks and Latino Immigrants

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For the past several years, an ongoing debate has been raging between my friends and I over racism and discrimination in America. At the crux of the discussion lies one specific question: which is worst, racism toward Blacks or racism toward Latino immigrants?

This question usually sparks an hour-long debate in which I argue that institutionalized racism toward Blacks represents the most historic and entrenched form of racism in America and my friends argue that American law poses a bigger obstacle to the Latino immigrant community than is placed in front of any other minority group. The comparison here is between de facto and de jure forms of racism.

This is nothing new. A similar argument existed even within the Black community during the century following the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery. Southern Blacks suffering under de jure racism under Jim Crow described Northern Blacks as much more fortunate to be living in a society where laws applied equally to all citizens. But Northern Blacks contended that they too were suffering as much (if not more) under de facto racism in the North than their Southern cousins were in the South.

Even now, it’s difficult to judge which community had it worst. While most acts of violence toward Blacks happened in the Jim Crow South, the largest race riots burned across much of the North following the Great Migration of the early 20th century. Chicago, for instance, has as racist a history as Birmingham. During the Red Summer of 1919, which saw race riots explode across America due primarily to Black immigration to the North, seemingly cosmopolitan Chicago experienced the worst of the racial violence. Mayor Richard J. Daley, at the age of 17, was a member of a group later charged with participating in the violence against Blacks, and to this day, Chicago remains one of the most unabashedly segregated cities in the country.

If you were a Black person living anywhere in the United States during the 100 years following the Civil War, you probably feared the Ku Klux Klan and the white people living on the other side of town more than you feared the law. The racial line in America was clearer than the one between Black and White. And the racial line between Blacks and Whites was furthered emboldened by the craze of scientific racism that swept the country around the turn of the 20th century. This pseudoscientific theory posited that Darwinism demonstrated how Blacks were biologically inferior to Whites. Although scientific racism officially fell out of favor during the 1920s, modern-day racist rhetoric still alludes to the racial inferiority of Blacks.

There has always been an almost inherent tension between the Black and immigrant communities in the United States. Blacks and Irish immigrants began competing at the same socioeconomic station beginning in the 1820s, when Irish immigration surged to meet the labor needs of a young, burgeoning nation. After the Irish Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, Irish immigration grew even more, increasing already high tensions between the Black and Irish communities in the metropolitan centers of the North. Blacks and the Irish were lumped together in the same miserable category by nativist Whites, and many of the disparaging comments made about the Black community were also used to degrade the Irish. Like Blacks, the Irish were labeled beastly, ignorant drunks who were easily enraged and fought each other daily. Signs in storefront windows read: No Irish. No Blacks. No Dogs.

When the Chinese began to immigrate to the West Coast beginning in the late 1800s, White men spread rumors that the Chinese lured White women into opium dens and fed them opium in order take advantage of them. And when the Italians began immigrating to the United States in large numbers around the same time, what was once said about Irish Catholics half a century before was widely said about Italian Catholics. Jewish immigrants in turn were characterized as greedy Christ-killers who were secretly spreading socialist principles in the United States.

Violent acts were committed against all immigrant groups. Some groups, like the Irish during the 19th century, were even lynched alongside Blacks. The only difference is that Blacks have consistently been the target of racial violence in America for nearly 400 years, since the first African slaves were brought to Virginia by a Dutch ship in 1619, to the brutal killing of James Anderson in Mississippi on June 26th of this year.

This is not to say that racial hatred and discrimination toward Latino immigrants today is not a serious problem. Of course it is. Every American should be truly disturbed by the anti-immigrant sentiment growing in states like Arizona and the laws it has engendered in states like Alabama.

But the discrimination facing Latino immigrants shows much more promise than that facing Black Americans. History shows us how each immigrant group has faced a period of racist opposition before being accepted into society. The obstacles facing the Latino immigrant community will soon be a part of that same history. The obstacles facing the Black community, however, are much more established.

Blacks are the only minority group that suffers from institutionalized racism, a system of racism and discrimination toward Blacks in America that pervades all areas of public life. In Chicago, as an example, Blacks are crowded into neglected neighborhoods where their children are crowded into failing schools. A Black person is three times more likely to be denied a loan than a White person with the same credentials. In White neighborhoods, police officers are viewed as agents of protection, while in Black neighborhoods, they’re seen as agents of control. And the statistics do nothing to allay such fears: Blacks are much more likely to be imprisoned than Whites, and they regularly receive tougher sentences than Whites. The White unemployment hovers at a high 8 percent, while the Black unemployment rate is double that.

Many people who think that racism isn’t a big a deal anymore and is used by too many Blacks as a reason not to achieve anything in America point to success stories from the Black community. They see people like President Barack Obama and former secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as evidence that racism has become less of an obstacle for Blacks today. But this mistake is commonly made by most Americans. They point to exemplary figures like Steve Jobs and argue that the American Dream is still attainable for anyone willing to try hard enough, seemingly ignorant of the fact that, no matter how hard they work, only two-fifths of a percent of all Americans are actually classified as millionaires. Americans really are dreaming.

Two things will eventually eliminate the obstacles that Latino immigrants now face: the coming economic recovery and immigration reform. Both are certain to take place; history has predicted it. Of course most Americans fear that we will never climb out of this recession, but that always happens. In fact, figures show that the recession is already behind us and the country is on the road to recovery. It’s hard to see the top of the mountain from the bottom, just as it was hard for us to see the bottom of the mountain when we were at the top (in the ‘90s).

When our economy recovers and there are plenty of jobs to go around again, there will be jobs that Americans will undoubtedly pass over and relegate to immigrant groups. To ensure that those roles are filled, the country will then find it necessary – at long last – to reform immigration law in order to encourage newcomers and allow them to work legally. The children and grandchildren of Latino immigrants will rise into positions of power and influence, and in 20 years’ time, few people will remember the hostility that Latino immigrants experienced after the September 11th attacks.

In the meantime, however, it’s inappropriate for Latinos to argue over whether Blacks or Latino immigrants have it worse in America. The truth is that we both have it worse than White Americans do, and while the latest recession have left Blacks and Latinos in direct competition over the few jobs available, now is not the time for the two communities to argue who has it worse or which is stealing jobs from the other.

The Black and Latino communities need to work in tandem in order to ensure that the obstacles we both face are overcome.

In 2007 Hector Luis Alamo, Jr co-founded an online blog, YoungObservers.blogspot.com, and has contributed regularly to the site since then. From December 2010 to May 2011, Hector was Opinions Editor for UIC’s Chicago Flame. In April 2011, he became a regular contributor for Hispanically Speaking News. Hector has a B.A. in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his departmental concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.