Minority Report

Why White America Would Rather Learn Spanish Than Ebonics

Now that Latinos are considering the potential spoils of their new status as the "top" minority in America, African Americans would like to say congratulations—sorta. We never gained much out of being the most numerous people of color. Here's hoping you fare better.

If the history of immigrants from places like Ireland and Italy is any guide, America's power brokers will prefer to deal with Latinos—a group closer in proximity to whiteness. Granted, coming from Ciudad Juárez isn't the same as coming from County Cork, but anything is better than coming up from slavery.

In that long climb, the effect of sheer mass has never compared to that of direct appeals to conscience and courts. The civil rights cause "was never based on numbers," says Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. "Blacks have raised these questions, and [white Americans] have responded because blacks have raised them very sharply."

For African Americans, the Latino explosion has no particular significance, except that the mere suggestion of a black-Latino rivalry deflects attention from the most entrenched conflict in American history—the one between blacks and whites. Better yet, Anglos prefer that blacks and Latinos fight it out, allowing them to sidestep race, and black people, altogether.

Last January, when the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Latinos had become the country's largest minority, you'd have thought all of black America had lost a marathon. The south Florida Sun-Sentinel announced we'd been "surpassed"; The Washington Post said Hispanics were "outpacing" us; and The Charlotte Observer cast us in a "slow eclipse." Earl Ofari Hutchinson peered into his scrying pool for the Los Angeles Daily News and divined the headline "Latinos' New Clout Threatening to Blacks."

Hutchinson was not alone. "African-Americans and the African-American leadership community are about to enter an identity crisis, the extent of which we've not begun to imagine," Henry Louis Gates Jr. predicted in a New York Times article. "Our privileged status is about to be disrupted in profound ways." Gates didn't specify how we'd ever been "privileged" or how that status would be "disrupted." Now that there are more Latinos in this country than blacks, would the government start dismantling affirmative action? Would the police start profiling us? Would high-ranking elected officials suddenly start making racist remarks? Oh, wait. . . .

Let's begin with the numbers. First, African Americans are still, and for the foreseeable future will be, the country's largest racial minority. Latino is not a racial category but an ethnic one. The census form allows you to check both for Hispanic ethnicity and for racial category. Some 37 million people identified as Latino, and 16.9 million Latinos checked "white alone" as their race. Officially, Latinos are the country's largest ethnic minority, but with 40 percent of their numbers identifying as white only—not white and something else—they are far from the largest racial minority.

Still, experts are auguring a national power struggle between blacks and Latinos. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Latino growth "comes at the expense of other minority groups, especially black people, who have worked for 200 years to get a level playing field, a fair shot."

Even if such a claim were true, don't expect much to come of it, if only for geographical reasons. When the 10 states with the largest percentage of Latinos is cross-referenced with the 10 states with the largest percentage of African Americans, there is not a single match. While this may be hard for New Yorkers to believe, in the states where the Latino population exceeds 20 percent of the total, the African American population is generally minuscule—Texas being the only exception. Even in California, where 32 percent of the population is Latino, African Americans make up a scant 7 percent of the total.

It's kind of hard to go to war with the guy next door when, well, he doesn't live next door. "Two-thirds of Latinos live in the Southwest. Fifty-five percent of African Americans live in the Southeast," notes Gregory Rodriguez, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "The majority of Latinos don't live in the same state, much less the same region of the country as African Americans." This does not mean there aren't certain regions where blacks and Latinos could find themselves in conflict. But don't expect it to be a national phenomenon.

Republicans, in particular, have been hot to make inroads with Latinos, in hopes of creating a voting bloc to counter the Democratic lock on the black community. If such a strategy is to succeed, expect it to be a regional effort also. Trying to draw a straight line between the national voting patterns of Cuban Americans in Florida and, say, Puerto Ricans in New York is folly, because the history of the two groups' interaction with America is so different.

According to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 54 percent of Cuban Americans are Republican, compared to only 19 percent of Mexican Americans and 8 percent of Dominican Americans.

None of this diminishes the very real ramifications of having 37 million Americans identify themselves as Latino. Nor should it trivialize the effects of anti-immigration measures and discrimination on Latinos. Furthermore, race and ethnicity have always been interwoven in American history, and the nexus of the two has often been a barrier to those seeking full citizenship. The Irish, Jews, and Italians, upon first arriving in America, were seen as something less than white, and occasionally, something even less than black.

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