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US'  Largest Minority Groups Face Challenges in Forming Alliances - 2004-02-18

The two largest minorities in the United States - Latinos and African Americans - face many of the same challenges in the nation's majority white society… and it would seem to benefit both groups if they formed political or economic alliances. However, the often-frayed relationships between African Americans and Latinos show how difficult such a partnership would be. The results of the last population census have brought this divisive issue to the surface.

Shortly after the 2000 population figures were released, the U.S. Census Bureau predicted that the number of Latinos would surpass the African American community in the year 2005. Statistician Signe Wetrogran says her agency was off by three years.

"On July 1, 2002, we estimated 38.8 million persons of Hispanic or Latino origin," she said. "If we take a look at he most comprehensive identification for Black, on July 1, 2002, there were 38.3 million black alone or in combination [with another race] population. The Hispanics now, since July 2002, for the first time is the nation's largest minority community." Being the largest minority group in America has certain advantages, according to one member of that group: California sociologist, attorney and author Nicholas Vaca.

"First of all, you have an impact on the political process," he explained. "You now have most of the Democratic and Republican Party leaders trying to lure the Latino vote. In order to do that you have to develop programs and policies that benefit or directly affect the Latino population.

"The other advantage is that you can no longer talk about race relations in the U.S as being black and white," continued Mr. Vaca. "It's now black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American. It's really multi-cultural in the true sense of the word."

But the poverty and discrimination that disproportionately affect minorities did not forge a multi-cultural bond… or prevent tensions between the two largest groups. Mr. Vaca says the roots of the Latino-African American conflict date back to the 1970s.

"At that time, you had what were the possibilities of an alliance, but even then you could see differences," he reminded. "We saw conflict over resources, which group was going to get most of the money to develop their programs, the African American studies, the Mexican studies or the Asian studies. So, even when we had this mutual support going on, you had the beginnings of the rift developing. But the difference was that in those days African Americans were the largest minority."

Nicholas Vaca, now a visiting scholar of sociology at the University of California in Berkeley, talks about the growing rift between Latinos and African Americans in his book, The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict between Latinos and Blacks. He says the existence of a bond between the two minorities was a false assumption.

"In the book I talk about Artillia Burch who is a reporter of the Charlotte Post, a black newspaper in Charlotte, North Carolina," said Mr. Vaca. "She was told to go and find out what the African American population think about the tremendous growth of Latinos in this area. She interviewed various members of community. She discovered there was some real antipathies, some real racial stereotypes, the kinds of comments you'd expect maybe from white racist from Southern Texas about Mexicans, but you wouldn't expect it from African Americans."

But Artillia Burch says she heard the same sorts of comments from Latinos.

"I talked to some Latinos from Mexico when I was doing some stories and some of the guys told me that they were warned about black people before they even arrive to America," she said.

Ms. Burch says many African Americans were threatened by the increasing numbers of Latinos moving to their neighborhoods and taking over their jobs. Such fears, she says, fueled more stereotypes.

"Sometimes you hear African Americans using stereotypes when they're talking about Latinos, the same stereotypes that were used years ago about African Americans, specially about the population, making remarks about Latinos having a lot of babies, that you can't let Latinos in certain communities, they'd tear it down," said Ms. Burch.

Stereotyping those who are different from us is a common reaction. Yet, Presumed Alliance author Nicolas Vaca says the challenge for Latinos and African Americans is to work together to overcome whatever stereotypes they have.

"I think it's important that the African American community come to terms in understanding with the Latino population because there is no stopping the growth of the Latino population," he said. "I think it's important to figure out what we are for each other, and how we relate to each other, so that we can avoid major conflict in the future. Once we're having understanding of where we stand, there's noting to prevent us from having alliances in the future."

By daring to raise the topic that may upset so many, Mr. Vaca hopes his book invites contemplation of important questions and offers a glimpse at what could be the future makeup of the American political landscape.