BY JONATHAN TILOVE
NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
December, 26, 1996
c. 1996 Newhouse
HOUSTON – As a trouble-shooter with the U.S. Justice Department, Efrain Martinez negotiates racial peace in and around America’s fourth-largest city.
There are, of course, the classic black-and-white or brown-and-white conflicts. But often now, it is blacks and browns who are butting heads over jobs and power. And increasingly, Martinez finds himself mediating disputes involving people who barely existed here 20 years ago.
The Houston area, for example, has one of the nation’s largest Vietnamese communities, and over the years Martinez, in his sotto voce style, has defused violent confrontations between Vietnamese fishermen and the Ku Klux Klan, between Vietnamese merchants and black customers, and between Vietnamese and Latino residents of the same condominium.
In the past year, he even brokered a truce between Vietnamese and Chinese members of the board of a new Tao temple, prompting one member of the board to gush, “You a hero. You stop a war.”
Nationally, and especially in those cities like Houston that are magnets for immigrants, race and ethnic relations are becoming more complexly contentious. In part it is simple math: Greater diversity yields more diverse points of conflict. But a wealth of survey research indicates that inter-minority hostilities and negative attitudes often are more pronounced than those that exist between whites and minorities, though the more polite white attitudes may be as much a function of more affluent distance as meaningful commitment.
Still, Asians in Los Angeles are far more likely than whites to view blacks and Hispanics as unintelligent, while most Hispanics and Asians – but only a minority of whites – think blacks prefer welfare to self-sufficiency. In New York City, Hispanics and Asians are more likely than whites to think blacks provoke hostility.
In return, blacks more than whites in both New York and Los Angeles consider Asians difficult to get along with. In Houston, blacks rate their relationship with Asians as worse than their relationship with whites.
“If we posit the original Rodney King question – `Can we all get along?’ – the answer is a resounding `no,’” says James Johnson Jr., a professor of business, sociology and geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the former director of the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at UCLA.
“I think we’re really headed toward more intolerance,” says Johnson, who is black.
Not everyone is so sure.
University of Houston sociologist Nestor Rodriguez says it remains to be seen whether Houston’s transformation from a city that was more than half Anglo (which is what they call whites here) in 1980, to one that will be 29 percent Anglo, 25 percent black, 39 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian by the year 2000, will prove its doing or undoing.
“I have a sense of Houston becoming better,” says Rodriguez. He takes hope from the fact that his survey this year of Houston’s black and Hispanic communities discovered black ambivalence – rather than one-sided anger – about immigration and people speaking Spanish at work. Houston, with the largest black population and largest Hispanic immigrant population of any city in the South, has enjoyed relative racial calm. People variously credit its size and sprawl, its deep-seated conservatism and the almost small-town relationships of the leaders of its various racial and ethnic communities. They also credit the deft capacity of the oligarchy that has always run America’s freest enterprise city to accommodate as necessary to keep a lid on.
“Our city fathers have always been tremendously successful at smelling a rat, calling it a rat, and driving the rat away,” says Barbara Lange, a black woman who serves on the board of the Houston Inter-Ethnic Forum, formed to foster city-wide dialogue on these issues.
Rodriguez thinks Johnson’s pessimism is premature, a consequence of looking at race relations through the fractured prism of Los Angeles.
But Johnson says that is not a prism but a window on the future.
“Los Angeles is the cutting edge and leading end of this wave of things to come,” he warns.
That whites should now express the most benign racial attitudes of any group may be the final irony for a nation whose racial order was built on bedrock notions of white supremacy, a legacy that still heavily conditions the way new immigrants encounter and evaluate blacks.
But there is a logical explanation. A 1994 National Conference (of Christian and Jews) survey conducted nationally by Louis Harris confirmed that minorities were more likely to stereotype one another than whites were. But, it noted a complementary pattern: “The affluent are more tolerant.”
It may be a function of education and sophistication. But it may also be that affluent whites living in comfortable suburbs or gated communities, with children ensconced in good public or private schools, can afford greater tolerance.
One in five whites exited Houston’s city limits in the 1980s. Only about one in 10 students in the Houston Independent School District are white. In his annual survey of ethnic relations in Houston, Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg discovered that whites are increasingly likely to support principles of ethnic tolerance, and yet oppose government programs designed to support greater social and economic equality.
“Anglos don’t support educating minorities of any color,” says Rosemary Covalt, a Hispanic activist deeply involved in school politics. Instead, she says, “Anglos play blacks against Hispanics and Hispanics against blacks.”
Yet Covalt acknowledges that most of her scrapes are with blacks over control of the schools, and those fights can be quite ugly, though she finds them more satisfying than contending with Anglo reserve.
“Anglos don’t vent. They can’t, they won’t, they don’t,” says Covalt, though she was pleased to hear cries of white anger emanating from the affluent suburb of Kingwood when it was recently annexed by the city of Houston. “I’ve never seen so many angry Anglos in my life,” says a delighted Covalt. & Dynamics of friction Efrain Martinez sketches out Houston’s new racial dynamics on a paper napkin. At the top he writes “Heaven,” and underlines it. Just below the line he writes, “whites,” and at the very bottom of the napkin, he writes, “Hispanics.”
“And here,” he says, placing his pen point mid-napkin, “are blacks.” He explains that many Hispanics see blacks standing between them and their share of public jobs and political power.
The friction with Hispanics is understandable, says Michael Harris, a popular black radio talk host on KCOH in Houston, who often uses his show to foster interethnic dialogue. “They are fighting for the same things we are fighting for. White people have the whole pie.”
In the private sector, blacks see immigrants taking jobs that once might have been theirs. The fundamental problem, says Klineberg, is that immigrants are arriving in a city “increasingly unable to produce enough well-paid jobs for the workers who are already here.”
The story of South Central Los Angeles, says James Johnson, is immigrants settling in a black community from which the good, industrial jobs have vanished. The employers that remain prefer cheaper, more pliant Hispanic immigrant labor for jobs at the bottom of the economy. And ethnic networks keep those jobs “in the family.”
Even a term like “Hispanic immigrant labor,” though, obscures more than it illuminates.
At the day labor site in the heavily immigrant neighborhood of Gulfton, more than 200 men gather daily in search of landscaping or construction jobs. Most all the laborers are Hispanic but, says Gonzalo Fernandez, a neighborhood organizer who helps at the site, there are distinct differences among them.
He explains: “The Guatemalans more easily agree to low wages. They come from the most conflicted area of Guatemala, they suffered a lot and they don’t want to put up more of a fight than they already put up with in their home country. The Hondurans get the most frustrated because they don’t want to work for less than $6 or $7.”
As opposed to the black-Hispanic competition, the Asian-black (and sometimes Asian-Latino) relationship in Houston or New York or Los Angeles is often defined by the merchant-customer interaction, which Queens College sociologist Pyong Gap Min says is made to order for negative stereotyping.
Min, the author of a new book, “Caught in the Middle: Korean Merchants in America’s Multiethnic Cities,” says those Korean merchants, most arriving from middle- class backgrounds in a thoroughly homogenous country, suddenly find themselves working in poor, black communities with high levels of violence, family breakup and other problems.
Min’s New York City survey found that most Korean merchants believed that black people were generally less intelligent, less honest and more criminally oriented than white people.
That same survey found that nearly two-thirds of native-born blacks in New York thought the Korean businesses drained resources from their community, and that about one in five blacks thought Koreans to be a “rude and nasty people.”
In Houston, as well, says Rodney Penn, head of Houston’s Black United Front, relations at the corner store are defining. “That’s the face of the Asian community,” he says.
Glenda Joe, a chain-smoking Asian-American activist (she is of Irish and Chinese descent) with a blond streak and a Texas twang, wrote a handbook detailing how Asian merchants can get along better with black customers.
“They may not come from a culture where the customer is always right,” explains Joe, who grew up working at her father’s store in the black community. He knew all about extending credit and developing friendships.
But Victoria Hyonchu Kwon, who has written a book about Koreans in Houston, says it is a very hard-working, insular, self-sufficient community and, as a rule they are just not that interested in getting to know poor black people, or any other non-Koreans for that matter.
Most searing on the psyche of the immigrant community, of course, are the many occasions on which Asian businesses in the black community have been robbed in Houston and other cities, with sometimes fatal consequences,
“Everybody knows someone who has been killed,” says Joe.
Dr. Tinh Van Tran, the president of the Vietnamese Community of Houston and Vicinity, who has worked closely with Efrain Martinez resolving many disputes involving his people, recalls a recent occasion when he slowed down to pick up some hitchhikers who were black.
As he slowed, though, Tran recalls, “my mind remembered that my adopted sister got robbed, got beaten.” The assailant was black. “I put my foot on the accelerator,” he says, acknowledging the unfairness.
Joe Feagin, a leading scholar on race and racism, says immigrants arrive with a melange of home-grown and imported prejudices.
“Latin Americans have a great deal of racism and discrimination against darker- skinned people, Indians and those of African descent, even though their whole ideology is that they don’t,” he says.
But, he says, you don’t have to have lived a day in the United States to have already been deeply influenced by the racial images promulgated in its media.
For example, Feagin says, a Taiwanese graduate student of his at the University of Florida interviewed people in rural Taiwan and found, “They had negative attitudes toward African-Americans even though they hadn’t met one. They pick it up from American media.”
And, on their arrival in America, Feagin says existing racist tendencies “are immediately reinforced.”
“That is the trend,” says the Rev. Alcides Alvarenga, the young Salvadoran pastor of a mission church in Gulfton. “We tend to adopt (white American) attitudes and prejudices.”
But, he adds, “we do not condone that.”
In the end, this attention to skin color and racial identity can be especially vexing for those who don’t fit any of the conventional categories.
Romulo and Eva Sandoval are Garifunas from Honduras, the descendants of the survivors of a shipwrecked slave ship on its way from Africa to the New World.
In Honduras, they say, their racial and ethnic identity was not particularly problematic. But in Houston, they find themselves caught in the middle of the racial crossfire.
White Americans mostly see them as black. That means that at their mostly white church some people assume that they must have become associated with the church through an affiliated drug abuse program. A woman asks Eva, a very well-educated and well-spoken English teacher, whether she works at K-Mart or Wal-Mart. The well- meaning pastor takes pain to inform parishioners that the Sandovals are from good Honduran families.
At the same time, Romulo says, American-born blacks view them as “not really black.” And Eva recalls how two Mexican-American women who were her best friends in college heartbreakingly left her out of their wedding parties.
Eva’s older sister came to Texas when she was two. “Ask her race and she says, `black.’” Eva arrived when she was 7. “I’m just Hispanic.”
“I find myself being very lonely,” says Eva. “I think I have the best of both worlds but when I try to find someone like me I can’t find anybody. Have you read that story, `The Man Without a Country?’ Sometimes I feel like that.”