Vol. 5 / No. 2 / Spring 2009  

Blacks and Latinos in the U.S.

by Roberto Suro

Still and Evolving Relationship

Creating pathways to educational opportunity and to civic participation are two top priorities for the Corporation’s National Program. In this essay, Roberto Suro, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, examines how relationships between blacks and Latinos are developing with important implications in both those realms.

Roberto Suro began a career as a journalist in Chicago in the mid-1970s when Latinos were beginning to become a sizeable presence in the city, sometimes moving into African American communities. Since then he has charted the growth of the Hispanic population in various roles as an author and researcher, serving as founding director of the Pew Hispanic Center from 2001 to 2007. Suro previously reported on developing Latino identities in the Spring 2006 edition of the Carnegie Reporter.


Roberto Suro On the flatlands of South Los Angeles, blacks and Latinos share neighborhoods of neat houses and broken institutions, a hospital shut down by federal regulators, a community college that has lost its accreditation, police districts where gang crimes fill the blotter. They share a geographic space and are often rivals for the same resources. Nonetheless, they inhabit different worlds and they represent two different trajectories through American history. Those trajectories now cross paths in South Los Angeles and many other American cities. Their intersection illuminates the scope and complexity of the demographic change that has overtaken the United States. But how do we describe the relationships between blacks and Latinos? The lack of a ready vocabulary points to the changes still to come in the ways that the nation understands and manages the strands that make up its population.

The most vividly reported depictions of dealings between blacks and Latinos emphasize conflict, most often criminal violence, between young men. For example, Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times last year that appeared under the simple headline, “In L.A., Race Kills.” Insisting he would not sidestep the issue as others had, Baca proclaimed, “So let me be very clear about one thing: we have a serious interracial violence problem in this county involving blacks and Latinos.” He cited a variety of incidents, and most disturbingly, he said his evidence showed that “Some of L.A.’s so-called gangs are really no more than loose-knit bands of blacks or Latinos roaming the streets looking for people of the other color to shoot.”

Other public officials, including the city’s police chief, William J. Bratton, disputed the assessment. Race may be a factor in prison riots but on the streets, it’s mostly battles over drugs and turf, they argued. And besides, most murders of blacks and Hispanics—as many as 90 percent—involve victims and perpetrators of the same group. Citizens were left to guess who was right and how many racially motivated murders are too many. An editorial in the Times noted wearily that the same alarm had been raised before, citing almost identical language in a report 15 years earlier. That stormed passed. Another will come before long. Conflict, antagonism and rivalry are recurrent themes.

But so is cooperation. The other oft-cited depiction emphasizes commonalities, blacks and Latinos working together, “people of color” who share a common basis for political and social collaboration. However, emphasizing their mutual designation as being other than white obscures more than it explains. To start with, it obscures the fact that race is constructed in many different ways in Latin America and so that diversity of identities is reflected in the Hispanic population. On census forms, about four-in-ten Hispanics designate their race as white. More importantly, there are profound differences in the ways that Latinos and African-Americans have arrived at the state of “otherness” in American society and in the ways that it is lived. Both Latinos and blacks are not white, but that status has different origins and different consequences for these two groups. Moreover, within these two distinct populations, identities are proliferating so that now there are many ways to be Latino, many ways to be black. And, as a result, there are ever more ways not to be white. Asians, who are not considered in detail in this essay, add still more identities and historical trajectories to the “people of color” formulation. Under such circumstances, color alone becomes a weak vehicle for understanding the ways racial and ethnic groups interact.

Racial Identity and the Presidential Election

Both conflict and commonality across color lines were used to explain the ways Latino voters responded to President Barack Obama at different points in the 2008 campaign. During the primaries, some commentators interpreted strong support for Hillary Clinton among Latinos as an indication that Hispanics would not vote for a black candidate. Their political behavior was said to be motivated by identity politics, specifically an animus toward blacks. Commentators readily overlooked the fact that Hispanic voters shared key socioeconomic characteristics with Clinton’s base among white voters: middle aged, middle class, middle of the road. Then, when Latinos backed Obama by a better than two-to-one nationwide in the general election and provided winning margins in four battleground states, the black-Latino rivalry had to be put away. It was suddenly gone and forgotten.

However, the people-of-color portrayal—blacks and Latinos coming together in common purpose—doesn’t explain what happened either. Obama was very careful not to position himself as a minority group advocate. He did not articulate an agenda designed to appeal to blacks and Latinos on the basis of their identities as non-whites. Yet, of course, he is quite manifestly not white and that is an important aspect of his political persona. Indeed, he appealed to many voters, including many whites, because he offered a version of racial identity that looks beyond whiteness as the norm in American society, that looks beyond the color lines.

The two default modes of explaining relations between Latinos and blacks—conflict over color and cooperation because of color— would seem to be mutually exclusive. And yet, Latino voters first rejected Obama and then embraced him. At best, these two stark formulations are useful to explain discrete events, and one can find many examples of each, often within a single community. But, as the 2008 election suggests, it is time to look beyond color and find different ways to think about color and its consequences. In this regard, voting behavior in 2008 is a signpost, one of many, pointing us toward a much larger event that is still unfolding.

Twenty-five years ago, non-Hispanic whites (we’ll just call them whites here for convenience’s sake) made up 80 percent of the American population. Their position as the dominant and unchallenged racial group seemed as safe and secure as it had been for two centuries or more. Twenty-five years from now, whites will make up about 50 percent of the population. That is a done deal. It doesn’t depend on the continued arrival of non-European immigrants en masse. In 2007, only 57 percent of the women having babies in the United States were white. Transformation on this scale will necessarily produce changes in the way society defines “otherness.” Our vocabulary, whether it is race-based—“people of color”—or numerical—“minority groups” —begins to lose its authority when the population is almost evenly divided between those defined as insiders and outsiders. And, along with the vocabulary goes a slew of policies, attitudes and social constructs that will need to be revised to account for the new realities.

Whites of European descent have constituted a large majority of the nation’s population since its founding. Even when they were the minority in places such as parts of the antebellum South or the Western frontier, the perception of demographic dominance has been an important element of their ability to define social, cultural and political norms by virtue of their demographic dominance. That fundamental national characteristic is now inexorably fading. But this profound change is not the result of conscious decision making at any level. No presidential candidate proposed that we undertake it. No Congress voted to make this a country that is half white and half not. No social movements took to the streets to advocate for demographic transformation. Some voices were raised in protest against the rise of the non-white population, complaining mostly about immigration, but those protests arrived belatedly, for the most part, after the change had been set in motion. And nobody dissented against the decline in fertility among whites which has proved the most potent transformation in the long run. Overall, no one much talked about these changes while they were happening, and certainly no one planned for the new realities. Slowly, steadily, and due to many different factors, the population changed. Now, as a result, American society will inexorably change. Politics and policies will change. Perceptions and attitudes will change, all in response to the change that has already taken place in our population. In other words, we are playing catch up with established facts. We are playing catch up in the ways we describe and assess our people and the tools we use to manage the differences among them. The interplay between blacks and Hispanics is just one of the venues for this very large process, but it highlights the changing boundaries between inclusion and exclusion. Understanding how African Americans and Latinos relate to each other, how they navigate the spaces they share, helps illuminate the ways that race, color and class—always dynamic concepts and always intertwined—are evolving.

In 1903, W.E. B. Du Bois predicted, accurately enough, that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” How would we update that statement today? Du Bois wrote of an unresolved problem arising from a well-established population. Four decades after emancipation American society was still painfully adjusting to the fact that 12 percent of its population was black. At the beginning of the 21st century, both the meaning of color and the ways the lines are drawn are changing. There is not just one scar, old and deep, but there are also new kinds of lines being drawn on shifting terrain.

Different Trajectories, Shifting “Norms”

If nothing else was changing except that the white share of the population was dropping from overwhelming dominance to a slim majority, American society would have plenty of change to be processing. But, the demographic transformation has occurred along another axis as well: the non-white population is rapidly growing more diverse due mostly to the growth of the Hispanic population and the emergence of Asian groups, as well. This marks another kind of shift for a country that could once define itself first, as white, and secondarily, as divided between white and black. Now, neither of those constructs holds. We are in the process of revising our notions of both what constitutes the norm and what constitutes “the other.” African-Americans have long exercised a unique role in our national consciousness because slavery and its aftermath are so central to its formation. Moreover, blacks historically were the only non-white population group of sufficient size to merit consistent consideration in our social and political discourse. Until recently, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans were relatively small and geographically concentrated populations. While these groups became the objects of regional concerns at different times, the national dialogue focused on the divide between the white majority and the black minority. The growth of the Hispanic population requires reconsideration of that framework. Twenty-five years ago there were half as many Hispanics as there were blacks in the U.S. Twenty-five years from now the Hispanic population will be twice as large as the African-American population. The non-white population now includes two substantial groups, not one, and the larger of the two is not the group that has historically played the role of the outsider in American society.

Both Latinos and blacks have struggled against barriers imposed by the majority society. But, they have faced different barriers and have waged different struggles. Most notably, African-Americans trace their origins in this country to a forced migration as slaves. Latinos have arrived by many routes, mostly voluntary. And those origins are merely a point of departure for distinctly different narratives. Those narratives oblige us to look beyond color, not to lose sight of it, but to understand how it has interacted with a variety of other factors to produce two very different trajectories through American life.

The Decline of the White Majority: Shares of the US Populaiton 1980-2030  Greater Non-White Diversity Shares of the US Population 1980-2030 Consider the question of civic enfranchisement—the ability to exercise political power at the ballot box. Over the course of the past half-century African-Americans have made extraordinary gains, starting with the dismantlement of Jim Crow barriers. Over the same time period, the number of Latinos barred from any kind of civic participation because of their immigration status has increased several times over. While increased enfranchisement is a central theme of the African-American narrative, a decrease is similarly central to the Latino narrative. This comparison is not meant to equate illegal immigration and the violation of voting rights in the segregated South in any way, not in the mechanics of the matter and certainly not in the moral judgments that apply. Rather, the intent here is to underscore the disparities: two peoples, different barriers, different struggles, different trajectories. Those trajectories are now converging in presidential politics, on city streets and in many other areas, as well. And it is in that convergence that we might see clues about the future of a country undergoing a profound and irreversible change in the makeup of its population.

Residential segregation has long served as a way of looking at how different sectors of our population relate to each other. It can be a powerful measure of social status because access to jobs and public services are often concentrated in some places and scarce in others just as poverty, crime and environmental hazards trend to be more prevalent in some areas than in others. Now, patterns of segregation also offer a way of understanding how population change is an engine of societal change.

While segregation was a deplorable feature of American society, to some it was at least a simpler concept to understand—though not accept—when it was a matter of black and white. The statistical methods for measuring segregation have grown more complicated as has the landscape being surveyed. As an overall trend, for example, the segregation of blacks has been on the decline since the 1980s, but that does not necessarily mean that African-Americans are now much more likely to share neighborhoods with whites. The growth of the Hispanic population has complicated the picture. A study published by the National Research Council in 2006 shows that by one important measure, the exposure index, the biggest change in recent years is that blacks have much greater exposure to Latinos. Meanwhile, blacks’ exposure to whites was virtually unchanged.

The exposure index indicates the probability of an individual sharing a census tract1 with an individual of their own or another group. Examining the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, the NRC study found that by this measure, isolation for blacks—the extent which they share neighborhoods with other blacks—had dropped by 19 percent between 1980 and 2000. Exposure to whites was virtually unchanged, however, increasing by less than one percent. In the meantime, blacks’ exposure to Hispanics had jumped by 70 percent. The extent to which this is happening varies considerably from one city to another depending on its history, the relative size of different populations and other factors. But, the basic trends are the same across the nation.

Spatial isolation has long been one of the defining social characteristics of the African-American population. It was often the product of deliberate segregation, an unmistakable result of the white mainstream’s actions and attitudes, and it has had grave consequences for blacks across generations. This isolation is now declining somewhat, and Latinos are a major factor in producing that change.

Simple growth explains much of that change along with the geographic dispersal that has accompanied that growth. Between 1980 and 2000, the size of the Hispanic population more than doubled, increasing from 14.6 million to 35.3 million. (It now stands at about 46 million.) Meanwhile, over the course of those two decades the non-Hispanic black population grew by only 29 percent, increasing from 26 million to 33.7 million. (It now stands at about 39 million.) And, as the Latino population grew, it also dispersed. Once concentrated in a few states and in central cities, Latinos have become a substantial presence in suburbs and in many parts of the country where they were once scarce. By virtue of their growth and dispersal alone, Latinos were likely to end up sharing neighborhoods with blacks to a greater extent than in the past. Therefore, the extent to which Latinos have integrated black communities is not necessarily the result of a deliberate effort. Indeed, looking at how the exposure indexes have changed for Latinos reveals some complex cross currents.

Again looking at the 100 largest metros between 1980 and 2000, the overall trend for Hispanics is toward greater isolation, not less as it is for blacks. While black isolation decreased by 19 percent between 1980 and 2000, it increased for Hispanics by 51 percent. Newly arrived immigrants everywhere have a tendency to cluster in enclaves, and that is certainly true for many Latinos today in American cities. But, other Latinos are dispersing across metropolitan landscapes, and Latinos have never experienced the same kind of systemic and widespread segregation visited on blacks. As a result, even with a trend toward increasing isolation, Latinos are less isolated than blacks. Moreover, Latinos have always had much greater exposure to whites. Although the trend is downward, Latinos in 2000 had 35 percent more exposure to whites than did blacks. When it comes to black-Latino intermingling, the change has been much less dramatic for Latinos than it has been for blacks. As noted above, black exposure to Hispanics increased by 70 percent between 1980 and 2000. But, over the same period, Hispanic exposure to blacks increased by only 10 percent.

1 Census tracts are small, relatively permanent subdivisions of a county.

Reflecting on Trends

To summarize, Hispanics are becoming more isolated, while segregation decreases for blacks. Nonetheless, even as their exposure to whites decreases, Hispanics are still more likely to share neighborhoods with whites than are blacks. And, one result of the growth of the Hispanic population means that blacks are increasingly sharing urban neighborhoods with Latinos.

In trying to unravel these complicated trends, several notable scholars have put forward what they call the “buffer hypothesis.” According to this argument, the growth and dispersal of the Hispanic population is softening established color lines by creating more diverse urban populations in which segregation among all groups is declining. That may well be true, but there are extenuating factors to consider. First of all, the separation of blacks and whites has remained exceptionally enduring, and a mixing of blacks and Latinos does not heal this divide or remedy its consequences. There may be new and different kinds of color lines on the American landscape, but the oldest and most fundamental of them persists. Research by John R. Logan, a sociologist at Brown University, shows that even the growth of the black middle class and black movement to the suburbs had little impact on the residential segregation of African Americans. And, black-white segregation remains vast. Logan measured it in 2000 using a statistical method called the “index of dissimilarity.” For blacks and whites in metropolitan America he found a dissimilarity index of 65.2. That means that 65 percent of all blacks or all whites would have to move into integrated neighborhoods to end the segregation. In cities with large black populations, the measure of segregation was much higher, over 80 in New York and Chicago for example. The average was brought down by cities with smaller black populations like Seattle with a dissimilarity score of 49.6.

The movement of Latinos into black neighborhoods has to be understood in this context. As much as racial barriers have been broken in other realms, blacks and whites mostly live apart. By necessity, those overwhelmingly black neighborhoods have become bastions, focal points for the development of small businesses, political organizations and social services. In recent years, Latinos have become a growing presence in many of those neighborhoods, and in some extreme cases, parts of South Los Angeles, for example, they quickly have become the majority.

“Anxiety about change” is the way Erin Aubry Kaplan described her reaction to the sight of a Latino family moving onto her block in South L.A. A columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Kaplan wrote about “big, resonant, unsettling changes” that have produced a sense of “our declining importance” among African Americans. In a 2007 column she wrote that the moving van down the street and the new Latino family “brings me closer to that reality than I care to be.”

Kaplan then described a school meeting that was designed to bring blacks and Latinos together but went awry after a black father complained about administrative staff who couldn’t speak English. “Nobody expects Latinos to solve our problems,” Kaplan concluded. “But we are tired of implicit calls for us to be ‘reasonable.’ Given our crazy-making history, is it surprising that we are a bit paranoid, that we react less than ideally to things like demographic shifts in our communities? Especially when those communities feel like the only currency we have left?”

Segregation still has dire consequences in the changing landscape of urban America, but integration, when it involves blacks and Latinos, is not an automatic remedy. It does not fix the sub-par schools and other public services that are often the hallmarks of segregated neighborhoods populated by only blacks or Latinos. If a neighborhood is a zone of exclusion—a place marked by low incomes, under-performing schools and high crime—it doesn’t matter much whether the population is monolithic or not.

The people can change, and the circumstances remain the same. Moreover, rapid succession between groups or even fast turnover among residents of a single group can have negative consequences. There, is, for example, the “rinse cycle” phenomenon in which the most established and successful individuals are continuously exiting an urban neighborhood, depleting its resources, while newcomers starting at the bottom move in. That has been observed in immigrant enclaves throughout history, and it is also happening in some black neighborhoods that are experiencing a Latino influx. Thus, spatial mixing alone does not necessarily make communities stronger. That requires political, social and economic intermingling; people from different racial and ethnic groups working together to resolve common problems. It requires a blurring of the color lines between blacks and Latinos; civic mobilization that is based on something other than group identity.

Even though they increasingly share neighborhoods, other evidence points to a considerable social distance between blacks and Latinos. In a 2007 survey by New American Media (NAM), a nonprofit association of ethnic media organizations, substantial majorities of Hispanics (73 percent) and blacks (67 percent) said that most of their friends were of their own race or ethnicity. Asked about dating, small minorities said they had crossed color lines with 10 percent of Latinos saying that they had ever gone out with a black and 15 percent of blacks saying that they had ever dated a Hispanic. The statistics on intermarriage confirm these findings. Only two percent of Latino marriages and three percent of African American marriages involve a spouse from the other population. Meanwhile, intermarriage with whites is much more common for both, 9 percent for blacks and 23 percent for Hispanics.

When public opinion polls turn to the broader state of relations between the two groups, the results suggest generally benign but not particularly warm attitudes. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington think tank, conducted in late 2007, blacks took a somewhat more positive view of relations between the two groups with 70 percent saying they got along “very well” or “pretty well” compared to 57 percent of Latinos. And, negative views were more prevalent among Latinos with 30 percent responding “not well” or “not at all well” compared to 18 percent of blacks.

Lining up to vote in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1948.

When the questions are more pointed, greater evidence of distrust becomes apparent. The 2007 NAM survey asked respondents about their comfort levels doing business with members of other racial groups. Among Hispanics, 61 percent said they were more comfortable with whites and only 3 percent said they favored blacks. Among blacks, 47 percent said they were more comfortable with whites and 10 percent favored Latinos. Few blacks (6 percent) or Hispanics (4 percent) expressed a preference for doing business with Asians.

These attitudes may have more to do with the overall state of race relations in American society than anything specific about dealings between blacks and Latinos. In the Pew survey, whites took somewhat dimmer views of relations among all groups than Hispanic or black respondents. And, the views that blacks and Latinos expressed about their respective relations with whites were not substantially different than their assessments of their relations with each other. In the NAM survey, Asian respondents similarly tilted in favor of doing business with whites rather than either blacks or Latinos. Although they are both on the same side of the color line that runs between whites and non-whites, blacks and Latinos do not necessarily express a particular affinity for each other or any special animosity.

Blacks and Latinos do, however, diverge in their perceptions of discrimination and opportunity in American society. While their attitudes towards each other may reflect the general state of affairs—race relations that are neither hostile nor trusting—their attitudes toward society as a whole reflect their different histories and diverging trajectories.

Perceptions of Discrimination and Opportunity

The 2007 Pew survey asked an extensive battery of questions on the extent to which blacks experience discrimination. The results showed a wide gap in perceptions between blacks on the one hand and Latinos and whites on the other. For example, two-thirds of African Americans (67 percent) say that blacks often encounter discrimination when they apply for a job. That view was shared by only 36 percent of Hispanics and 20 percent of whites. The survey found similar disparities when respondents were asked about blacks’ experience of discrimination in college applications, housing and service in restaurants and retail stores. The gap in perceptions between blacks and Hispanics ranged from 21 percent to 31 percent on these four questions while the gap between blacks and whites ranged from 36 percent to 47 percent. These large and consistent disparities leave little doubt that blacks see their position in American society quite differently and far more negatively than either whites or Latinos. And, Latinos are only a little more likely to see discrimination against blacks than whites. In this case there is a color line in perceptions with blacks on one side and Latinos together with whites on the other.

But there is not just a difference in perceptions of discrimination. There are also contrasts in the way blacks and Hispanics see opportunity. The NAM survey asked respondents whether they believed in the proposition that “if you work hard, you will succeed in the United States.” Three-quarters of Hispanics (74 percent) and two-thirds of Asians (64 percent) said they strongly agreed, but only 44 percent of African-American respondents shared that view. And, the answers were similar among blacks regardless of their economic standing. Another question in the same survey asked whether every American regardless of race or ethnicity had an equal opportunity to succeed. In this case, Hispanics strongly agreed with the optimistic assertion by a margin of two-to-one over blacks (59 percent vs. 30 percent) with Asians falling in-between (43 percent).

These differing perceptions reflect both differing circumstances and differing routes for arriving at those circumstances.

By most measures of economic well-being, Hispanics are better off than blacks but still lag significantly behind whites. That has been the case since the Latino population began growing although the distance between Hispanics and African Americans has been narrowing in recent years. So, for example, in 1980, the share of black families living below the poverty rate was six points higher than for Latinos (29 percent vs. 23 percent). In 2007, the gap had narrowed to two points (22 percent vs. 20 percent). What has not changed is that the poverty rate is consistently many times higher for both blacks and Latinos than it is for whites, 6 percent of families in 2007.

Similarly, in 1980 the average annual income for Hispanic households was 75 percent of what whites earned while blacks were at 63 percent, a 12 point gap. In 2007, it was only a five point gap with Latino households earning 69 percent as much as their white counterparts and blacks taking in 64 percent. Multiple factors explain both the gap and its narrowing. For example, while Latinos have lower earnings than blacks on an individual basis, Hispanic households more commonly pool income among multiple workers. The convergence in economic well-being in recent years is the result of both improved outcomes for blacks, and the increasing share of the Hispanic population made up of recently arrived immigrants starting at the bottom.

Without meaning to discount the importance of these differences, it seems that the gap in perceptions and attitudes also points to something broader and less easy to quantify. Both blacks and Latinos lag behind whites in important measures of economic well-being enough to put them on the wrong side of the line demarcating privilege in American society, and yet they have notably different views of barriers and opportunities in that society. It is tempting, therefore, to look to history for explanations of the differing attitudes and for clues as to how relations between these groups will be shaped and how they will each relate to American society as a whole.

“Otherness” Persists

Both Latinos and blacks have histories of exclusion in American society and of struggles to overcome exclusion, but, as noted before, they are very different histories starting from their points of origin. Much of the African American population is, of course, the product of slavery. The Hispanic population finds some of its roots in conquest: Puerto Rico, Texas, California and the Southwest. Some parts of the population are the result of political flight: Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Central America. But the great majority of Latinos can trace their presence in this country to economic migration: a search for a better life that, no matter how arduous, is essentially voluntary.

Despite the fundamental differences, there is one similarity in these stories. Both blacks and Latinos have come to this country primarily to meet a demand for cheap labor, and over the course of generations they have remained disproportionately represented among those who do physical work for low wages. That status has been a powerful factor in molding their group identities both in the ways they have been seen and treated by the white majority and the ways they see themselves. Their “otherness” is the result not just of color or culture but also of their place in the nation’s economic scheme.

A café owner in the Mexican Town district of Detroit. In this regard, blacks and Latinos represent parallel but distinct trajectories through American history. They have both faced exclusion, although on very different grounds, and that exclusion has been enforced by very different means. Both, however, have been involved in a long series of negotiations, and sometimes battles, with American institutions to remedy, or at least ameliorate, that exclusion. These are different narratives although their plots share some similarities. Indeed at times these trajectories have intersected. During the civil rights era, for example, Hispanics adopted some of the legal tactics and political ideologies pioneered by blacks. And, immigration has at times played a role in the black narrative, most prominently, of late, by helping produce notable leaders like Barack Obama and Colin Powell.

These parallel narratives now seem to be diverging in some important respects. Indeed, recent events seem to be taking blacks and Latinos in opposite directions. As one triumphs in the political arena, the other faces a new crisis in the realm of public policy.

With Obama’s election, much has been made of a generational change in the nature of black politics; an evolution from those who fought for civil rights to those who are building on those gains. And yet most blacks, as indicated by public opinion surveys, continue to see discrimination as a common event in African American life. Significant battles for inclusion have been won, particularly in public institutions and public discourse. The discrimination and the legacies of discrimination that remain are deeply embedded in economic structures, institutional cultures and social habits. While still nefarious, they have proved much less actionable than more formalized bias, and with the decline of affirmative action, government is playing a smaller role in generating potential remedies. Even if civil rights enforcement is reinvigorated by the Obama administration, race seems to have moved away from the realms of politics and policy compared to the preoccupations of decades past.

Meanwhile, the terms of exclusion for Hispanics have moved more squarely into the realms of politics and policy. About four of every ten Hispanics are foreign born, and among those newcomers, about half, some 9.6 million people, are unauthorized migrants. Another 5 million are children living with at least one unauthorized parent. These are the most recent arrivals in America’s long tradition of importing low-cost workers and assigning them to a racialized caste. For several years now, the status of unauthorized migrants has dominated political discourse regarding the Hispanic population. And, just as blacks were celebrating Obama’s breaking of barriers, Latinos were facing new barriers.

As Congressional efforts to enact immigration reform foundered in 2006 and 2007, the Bush administration undertook a campaign of raids, deportation and detention aimed at illegal migrants. Meanwhile, a variety of state and local measures were enacted to deny them jobs, housing and social services. Along with increasingly vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric and a rise in hate crimes aimed at Latino immigrants, Latino leaders have declared that the entire Hispanic population faces a humanitarian and civil rights crisis.

“Make no mistake; this is about all of us,” is the way Janet Murgia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, put it in her keynote address to the group’s 2008 national convention. In two important realms, then—discrimination and migration status—blacks and Latinos face distinctly different kinds of challenges in their dealings with American society and institutions. However, they face common challenges elsewhere.

In the urban neighborhoods where they are thrown together, young blacks and Latinos often produce images of conflict, fighting in schools and jails and on the streets. Yet it is among those young people where the fates of these two populations converge most clearly. Together, blacks and Latinos make up nearly four of every ten students enrolled in the nation’s public schools, and by virtually every measure of educational outcomes they lag behind, usually very far behind, the whites and Asians who make up the other six.

Blacks and Latino students do not necessarily go to the same schools; in fact, they tend to be concentrated separately in schools in which one group or the other dominates enrollment. Relatively few go to schools where most of the students are whites. What blacks and Latinos do share are lower levels of achievement compared to whites and Asians on everything from kindergarten reading tests to advanced placement exams for high school seniors. Simply put, blacks and Latinos are roughly twice as likely as whites to drop out of high school. And, among those who do finish high school, blacks and Latinos are roughly half as likely as whites to end up with a bachelor’s degree. These educational outcomes play out across a lifetime in lower incomes, higher unemployment and higher rates of incarceration.

Although America’s population is changing, these are old color lines. They are boundaries in which the effects of race and class are compounded by each other and form what the social scientists call “cumulative disadvantage.” Lots of studies have shown that various factors such as education, employment, crime, housing and health care are all causally linked. Setbacks in different realms act on each other in ways that accentuate negative outcomes overall. Fixing any one or two problems at a time does not necessarily remedy the whole situation under such circumstances. For low-income blacks and Latinos, the individual factors may often differ. For example, while one is contending with discrimination based on race, the other is dealing with exclusion based on immigration status. But nonetheless, they share that condition in which the whole is much worse than the sum of the parts. Du Bois saw something similar more than a hundred years ago when he wrote, “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

Even if immigration policies are resolved, even if discriminatory barriers to high achievement are removed, the problems of the young and the unschooled—increasingly a population of non-whites—will fester. At many points in their parallel trajectories blacks and Latinos have each faced the special hardship that develops when color lines overlap with economic disadvantage. In the past they have almost always faced that hardship separately, and their distinct experiences with it have shaped their distinct identities. Now perhaps, in this regard, they have more in common than ever before. What remains to be seen is whether or not they will deal with this hardship together. If it happens, it will be in places like South Los Angeles and the other urban communities they increasingly share; places where black and Latino young men often fight each other even though they share that bottom of hardships and the dismal fate it imparts. 

Vol. 5 / No. 2 / Spring 2009