Black versus Brown

Leticia Vasquez calls hers a "typical immigrant story." Her parents, poor strivers from Mexico, raised five splendidly thriving children--one of whom, Leticia, 34, is now mayor of Lynwood, Calif., the small town where she grew up. It is a heartwarming tale that readily brings to mind a host of clichés about the American dream. But the story does not end with wine, roses and applause. Instead it segues into the troubled terrain of race, corruption and polarization.

Of late, Vasquez has been pilloried by fellow Mexican-Americans for being--in her estimation, at least--too sympathetic to black constituents. Her foes, whose attempt to recall her failed last week when their petitions were found to be lacking, claim race has nothing to do with their discontent. Armando Rea, a former mayor and prominent critic, says the problem is that Vasquez, a "pathological liar," is intent on levying taxes the community cannot afford. Fliers circulated by recall proponents also portray her as the puppet of a former mayor, Paul Richards, who is black and is currently in prison for siphoning off city funds. Vasquez, who says she barely knows Richards, sees the charges as nothing but a smoke screen for racism: "There is this mind-set that if you support someone outside of your ethnicity, you must not like who you are."

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of ethnic politics in the 21st century, when blacks and Latinos, once presumed to be natural allies, increasingly find themselves competing for power and where promotion of racial harmony is as likely to evoke anger as admiration. Lynwood is a case study in the power of prejudice, the pitfalls of ethnic conflict and, perhaps, ultimately, the potential for interethnic cooperation. It may also foreshadow America's future--one that will increasingly see blacks and Latinos fighting, sometimes together and sometimes each other, to overcome a history of marginalization.

Lynwood's ethnic tensions stem, in part, from the town's rapid ethnic transformation. In the 1970s, blacks began to arrive in significant numbers in the small, largely white, bedroom community of Los Angeles. In 1983, Lynwood elected its first black council member, Robert Henning, who was joined two years later by Evelyn Wells--a black female, who promptly nominated Henning to be mayor. The council (which names the mayor) went along. Blacks quickly came to dominate the political power structure. Meanwhile, Latinos were growing in number. Rea, the first Latino council member, was elected in 1989. In 1997, Latinos (who now comprise 82 percent of the city's 72,000 residents) gained control of the five-member council. Vasquez, who was not then active in politics, remembers "people knocking on the door saying we needed to get rid of black city-council members."

With Rea installed as mayor, the city fired several blacks and dismissed some black contractors. "They got rid of 15 people at one time. Thirteen of those people were black," claims the Rev. Alfreddie Johnson, a Vasquez ally currently on the council. Three black contractors filed suit accusing Rea and his allies of rampant racial discrimination. Rea adamantly rejected the allegations. "There is no color in my council," he declared at the time. No one currently in government seems to know exactly how much ultimately was paid out to settle discrimination complaints or how many people were affected, but Vasquez and Johnson insist that the amount was substantial and the experience traumatic. A former schoolteacher elected in 2003, Vasquez sees herself as a bridge between the two communities. Johnson sees Vasquez as a godsend: "The unique thing about her [is] ... she has this huge affinity for black people." Many longtime black residents are grateful. "We need somebody, regardless of what race they are, to speak for us, too," said Dorothy Smith, a retired teacher and social worker. "A lot of them [Latinos] want to shut us out completely."

As Latinos increasingly become the ethnic majority in once proudly black venues (including Compton, a hip-hop capital, and Watts, formerly L.A.'s black mecca), and as headlines tout them as America's hot, and largest, minority group, many blacks share Smith's fear of being "shut out." Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an L.A.-based writer and activist, recalls the bitter reaction he got for writing a series of articles sympathetic to Latino immigrants: "I have never received so much hate mail from blacks. It touched a nerve among black folks, a raw nerve."

Against the backdrop of Latino-black violence in Los Angeles County jails (which resulted in the deaths of two black inmates), and interethnic fighting in the schools, Najee Ali, executive director of Project Islamic Hope, organized a so-called black-Latino summit earlier this month. There, Christine Chavez, the granddaughter of legendary farmworker leader Cesar Chavez, spoke movingly of her grandfather's patterning his work on Martin Luther King's movement. "In order for a movement for mostly Latino workers to be successful," she said, "we had to reach out to other communities."

After May's massive and largely Latino demonstrations for immigration reform, some believe that era may have passed. "I turned on the TV and saw millions of people nationally and [felt] a sense of fear," confided Ali. "We were now being marginalized." Upon reflection, Ali concluded that the protest paved the way for blacks and Latinos together to "demand a bigger piece of the pie." Many who came to his summit agreed. Blacks and Latinos, they argued, should focus on the powerful interests exploiting both groups instead of squabbling with each other. As California state Sen. Gloria Romero put it, "Nobody walks into a field and says, 'Move over, bro, I'm working now.' These jobs are offered, they are not taken."

That message resonates in Tar Hill, N.C., where black and Latino workers at the colossal Smithfield pork-processing plant originally had little to say to each other. To help break down walls, the United Food and Commercial Workers union organized a monthly potluck dinner. "People started bringing all kinds of food ... from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and they shared their stories," said union organizer Eduardo Piña. "People that usually don't trust each other" are recognizing "how similar their situations are."

Ted Shaw, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, thinks it is in blacks' self-interest to embrace Latinos struggling to survive. "I think black folks should think long and hard before we ... alienate a growing and powerful community [with] many interests in common," he says.

No one really disagrees with the idea of focusing on common problems instead of retreating into ethnic enclaves. Still, it is anyone's guess how well the black-Latino unity message ultimately will play. Uncontroversial as the principle may be, it is rather difficult to practice; it is almost always easier to see the things that divide Americans than to see what binds--or should bind--us together. What the new demographics are making very clear is that not only whites can have vision problems, but so, too, can blacks and Latinos.