ATLANTA - 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.
Several Southern states now lead the nation in the growth of Hispanic residents and illegal immigrants.
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 were often held by unskilled black workers.
An April 2006 Pew Research Center poll 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.
That animosity endures in the South, where anti-immigrant groups argue that Hispanic newcomers are willing to accept wages that others won't. Many Southern employers, especially farmers, however, say that there simply aren't enough local workers to harvest their peaches and pluck their chickens.
Is the job argument simply a new version of the "racial baiting" behind historic white-on-black discrimination in the South? Yes, race relations historian John Inscoe said, it's all too easy to stir up racial mistrust in poor people who feel outnumbered in the fight for survival.
Of the three metropolitan areas with booming immigrant populations surveyed in a study related to the April Pew poll, it's only in the Southern one - Raleigh-Durham, N.C. - that a solid majority of blacks favors cutting back on legal immigration.
But some people 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," NAACP President Bruce Gordon said. "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 black leaders have not always embraced the notion of solidarity among minorities, citing as an example New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's comment that he feared that city would be "overrun by Mexican workers" during reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina.
In Georgia, the growing pains in the developing black-Hispanic relationship have been acute.
"Both sides (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.
Because skin color is still a defining issue in race relations, and most Hispanics in the U.S. are white, 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 it would weaken the state's goal of helping black businesses.
However, in April some black leaders spoke of a shared cause against discrimination at a pro-immigration rally in Atlanta that drew 50,000 people, the kind of street demonstration typical of the civil rights movement defined by Atlanta son the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Overcoming mistrust and misunderstandings will take time, experts say.
After the attacks in Tifton, even though they were not officially termed hate crimes, the U.S. 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."
Minority status: 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. (It counts Hispanics as people of any race whose ethnic background is in Spanish-speaking countries.)
Unemployment: In 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.
Earnings: Hispanics also earn more than blacks; their median household income of $33,765 in 2005 was nearly 10 percent higher than that of blacks.
Source: Census Bureau
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