By JONATHAN TILOVE
September 28, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ There is a deja vu quality to the nation’s post-Katrina interest in race and poverty. It brings to mind the call-to-conscience of the Kerner Commission, named by President Johnson in the wake of the urban riots of the 1960s, and its warning of an America “moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
But of course, America is not black and white anymore, thanks to another legacy of that era _ the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, which Johnson signed into law Oct. 3, 1965. Infused with the civil rights spirit of the day, Hart-Cellar eliminated national origin quotas designed to keep the United States a mostly Northern European nation, ushering in an era of mass immigration, mostly from Latin America and Asia. It would transform America’s racial and ethnic makeup more than any legislation in history.
Forty years later, whites are a diminished majority in a far more diverse nation, but still comprise more than two-thirds of its population and a commanding share of its wealth and power. Blacks, meanwhile, have lost their standing as the dominant minority group, effectively ceding their singular claim on the national conscience, their grievances undermined by the competing demands and relative success of many immigrants of color.
“People are becoming aware that you can’t talk about black and white anymore,” said Gerald Jaynes, professor of economics and African-American studies at Yale University. In 1989, Jaynes co-edited “A Common Destiny,” in its time the definitive study of blacks in American society. By 2000, he was editing another volume, “Immigration and Race.” In 1960, blacks accounted for 69 percent of the U.S. minority population. By 2004, according to Census Bureau estimates, blacks were only 39 percent of the minority population. Hispanics became the largest minority in 2001.
“What we have is not a black and white situation. It’s black and brown, and white and Asian, and black and Asian, and on it goes,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black writer and commentator who presides over the weekly Los Angeles Urban Roundtable.
In Los Angeles, as in California, blacks are now the third-largest minority, behind both Latinos and Asians, their ranks of elected officials thinning year by year. Watts, the definitive black ghetto when it exploded in riots in August 1965, long ago became mostly Latino.
“This is a new world,” said Nicolas C. Vaca, a Bay Area lawyer and sociologist, author of last year’s “The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America.” In his book, Vaca describes the demographic wave overtaking black America as “the Latino tsunami” that will forever alter the arithmetic of minority politics.
The new axioms of power, he writes, are that Latinos outnumber blacks, that they will compete for jobs and resources, that Latinos have their own history of oppression, and, most pointedly, that “because Latinos are not responsible for the plight of African-Americans, they come to the table with a clear conscience.” From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, black appeals to conscience and white guilt have proved indispensible to progress. But, as time passes and America’s complexion changes, those appeals lose traction.
When John Hope Franklin, the eminent historian of the black experience, was named to chair President Clinton’s advisory board on race in 1997, he insisted that the board first focus on the fundamental question of black-white relations. Countered Angela Oh, a liberal young Korean-American lawyer from Los Angeles, who served on the board: “We can’t undo this part of our heritage. But what we can affect is where we are headed. I want to talk about multiculturalism, because I think that’s where we are headed.”
When Philadelphia earlier this year became the first city to require that every high school student take a year-long course in African and African-American history, Chester Finn Jr., a conservative education reformer who served in the Reagan Education Department, assailed the development in the name of immigrant children. “Why are they and their heritages being discriminated against?” Finn wrote in the June 16 newsletter of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, of which he is president. “One imagines families of Mexican, Trinidadian, Irish, Korean and Bangladeshi backgrounds asking why the school system is `privileging’ its African-American students’ heritage and neglecting their own.”
These are perilous times for African-Americans, argues Stephen Steinberg, a scholar of race at Queens College and author of “The Ethnic Myth” and “Turning Back: The Retreat From Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy.” Steinberg addressed immigration’s impact on blacks in the summer issue of the left journal New Politics. “The extension of race beyond the binary of black and white, the admission of permutations in the middle, has deflected attention away from the unique and unresolved problems of race qua African-Americans,” he wrote. “The result is that the nation congratulates itself on its `diversity’ and celebrates its `multiculturalism,’ while the problems of African-Americans continue to fester.”
Blacks are caught coming and going. The success of many immigrants of color is used as proof that blacks’ misery is their own doing, not, as the Kerner Commission asserted, the consequence of white racism. But Steinberg said even many on the left turn a blind eye to the racism he sees as intrinsic in employer preferences for immigrant labor, in the network hiring and ethnic niches in the economy that limit opportunities for blacks. The deep irony here, Steinberg points out, is that it was the black protest movement that created the conditions for immigration reform.
Frederick Lynch, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and author of “The Diversity Machine,” said that corporate, political and academic elites were only too happy to redirect affirmative action from the difficult work of adressing discrimination against blacks to the broader, more prospective agenda of corralling diversity. And politically, Lynch said, while Republicans make high-profile overtures for black support, it is clear that the real prize is the growing Latino vote. So it was left to a hurricane to put the question of race and poverty back on the front page and the forefront of public concern.
“In many ways,” Lynch said, “New Orleans is a quick flashback to what was.”
“As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region,” President Bush told the nation Sept. 15, speaking from Jackson Square in New Orleans. “That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”
“Poverty, Race & Katrina: Lessons of a National Shame,” read the cover of the Sept. 19 issue of Newsweek over a close-up photo of the tear-streaked face of a black child. In fact, race and poverty are tightly linked in New Orleans. The city has not been a big destination for immigrants. Before Katrina, it was only 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian. It was more than two-thirds black, 35 percent of whom lived in poverty, those most likely left stranded by Katrina.
Nationally, Hispanics are nearly as likely as blacks to be poor. A California earthquake might have put barrio poverty on Newsweek’s cover. Perhaps. Because, true or not, Hispanic poverty often is viewed as transitory, even a rite of passage for newcomers who arrive with nothing. The national narrative for Latinos is one of surging ascendance. When Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor of Los Angeles in May he landed on the cover of Newsweek: “Latino Power _ And How Hispanics Will Change American Politics.” Where the issue with the black Katrina survivor on the cover mapped “the geography of destitution,” the Villaraigosa issue mapped the “New Latino Nation.”
In the Sept. 25 Los Angeles Times, contributing editor Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote a piece headlined, “La Nueva Orleans: Latino immigrants, many of them here illegally, will rebuild the Gulf Coast _ and stay there.” Already, he said, Washington was greasing the skids by suspending the Davis-Bacon Act that would have required government contractors rebuilding the Gulf to pay prevailing wages, and by suspending sanctions against employers who hire immigrant victims of Katrina who cannot prove their legal status. New Orleans will be rebuilt, Rodriguez predicted, and, in its new makeup, “look like Los Angeles.”
Hyperbolic, perhaps, but the pattern is plain to Hutchinson. “The vibrant new ethnic group in America are Hispanics,” he said, while the interests of African-Americans “are falling by the wayside.”