Writers Weigh Black/Latino Relations in L.A.

Recently, the Los Angeles Times Opinion page asked several writers to give their perspective about the relations between Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles. Gustavo Arellano, columnist and author of the book Ask a Mexican, is joined by Erin Aubry Kaplan, contributing editor to the Times' Opinion page, to discuss their response to the newspapers callout for perspectives.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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But first, we talked earlier in this program about the things that are bringing us together and the things that drive us apart. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times opinion page asked several writers to give their perspective about the relationship between blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles. They published five pieces last Sunday that documented wildly varying experiences, ranging from unease and violence to sympathy and cooperation between the two groups.

We wanted to hear more about this, so with us now are two of the writers. Gustavo Arellano is a regular contributor to our program. He's the author of a column and book, "Ask a Mexican." He joins us by phone from San Diego. And Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times opinion page. She joins us now from NPR West.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. GUSTAVO ARELLANO (Contributing Writer, Los Angeles Times; Author, "Ask a Mexican"): Ola, Michel.

Ms. ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN (Contributing Editor, Los Angeles Times): Hi. It's a pleasure to be on.

MARTIN: Erin, let me start with you. You wrote that:

(Reading) "Black people are tired of being conflated with Latinos as poor people in the same boat, navigating the same rough waters of ghetto deprivation, traveling a similar historical arc up to and including their immigration to Southern California, seeking respite from an oppressive life."

Kind of strong words. Why did you want to write that?

Ms. KAPLAN: I just want to make a distinction between the experiences of blacks and Latinos. We are very focused on what the similarities are right now, and that's understandable. But there's also a difference that we have to talk about before we can talk about any kind of collaboration. And I just wanted to point out that the black experience and the black sort of expectations - socially and economically and politically - are different from that of most other groups.

MARTIN: So you think this whole, like, people of color label that has become very common these days, you think that that's masking something very important.

Ms. KAPLAN: I do think so, and I think - we get a lot of talk about sort of living in a post-racial society. And that would be wonderful. That's ideal, but that is just not the case. There are a lot of racial issues we have not resolved, and racial issues that are specific to black folks.

MARTIN: And Gustavo, you wrote:

(Reading) "Black-brown tensions are simultaneously overplayed and understated."

And you go on to talk about this with an anecdote from your own life. Will you tell us that story?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARELLANO: That was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I was introduced by a friend of mine to an African-American journalist who I had long, long admired. So when we go to the introductions, I tried to give him a full shake, you know, to do the two or three little shakes before you hit each other on the fist. And when I tried doing that, the guy, he just went for a normal handshake, and we looked at each other and it was both like, uh-oh, Gustavo, you did something wrong. And then afterwards…

MARTIN: And was the black guy irritated?

Mr. ARELLANO: No, well, he…

MARTIN: Tell the truth.

Mr. ARELLANO: …was surprised. I wouldn't say irritated, but he was surprised that I would go for a shake like that. Then afterwards, you know, my friend is like, why are you doing that? Why are you assuming that, you know, all black people are going to shake hands like that? And in my mind, I'm like, you know, it's right.

And, in a way, that's how I grew up in, you know, the barrio where I grew up, and that's how we all shook hands. And I assumed - you know, it's interesting to what Erin said. I assumed that, you know, African-Americans, they also have the similar experience of myself. Therefore, when we would greet each other cordially or, you know, as friends, that we would do that same handshake.

And to me, it really illustrates what's going on between - in the tension between African-Americans and Latinos. In the way it's understood, it's just people - that Latinos, especially, specifically people from Mexico, there are not that many Afro-Mexicans. And so we don't deal with the day-to-day interactions. But when you bring those prejudices up here to the United States, there's also going to be more misunderstandings exacerbated by our own Mexican upbringing.

MARTIN: The immediate sort of spark for this series of pieces was that there have been incidents in Los Angeles. There have been some gang-related incidents that have gotten a lot of attention including both groups. But do you think it goes beyond that? I mean, clearly you are both writers. It's part of your job to kind of explicate kind of the cultural experience. But I want to ask you both. Do you think that kind of the black-brown dynamic is one that needs to be discussed more? And do you think that there is, in fact, more tension there overall, apart from the gang experience that isn't being talked about? Erin?

Ms. KAPLAN: I think there is more tension. There is the tension at sort of the other end of the spectrum. In politics, for example, there's a lot of sort of infighting and, you know, in city hall and elsewhere about power sharing, you know, and about who's going to take what spot. But there's a huge middle group, like just people living day to day who have "gotten along," quote, unquote, for many, many years.

As a friend of mine pointed out, you know, people in L.A. and probably most big cities, they coexist pretty well. I live in a neighborhood that is actually changing from black to brown, and for the most part, the vast majority of people are coexisting just fine.

MARTIN: Gustavo, what do you think?

Mr. ARELLANO: I think in the terms of broader issues, no. The big issue to me is that there is a demographics change as Erin pointed out. Latinos are trying to - or not - even if they're trying to, they're assuming the position in Los Angeles as sort of the dominant minority - not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of people being elected to office. And it's inevitable that there's going to be tension. There's been tensions throughout the foundation of this country when it comes to different immigrant groups mixing.

One thing that I do try to point out in my column and in my writings is that Mexican immigrants, they are coming with a preconceived notion of what an African-American is. And popular culture in Mexico, whenever there are depictions that people of African descent, they're always are the darkies, as the coon, you know, caricature - dancing, shucking and jiving all the time.

So when they bring those stereotypes up here to the United States, I think that's where - not only is there going to be misunderstandings, but that's where a lot of these gang bangers, a lot of these people who do try to be prejudiced against African-Americans, they're drawing from their own culture to justify their prejudices.

MARTIN: You know, I was going to point out that one of the other pieces in the series points out that there was a camaraderie in the past between leaders like Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. So what happened to that? Do you feel…

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, you know, I think…

MARTIN: And, I mean, at the Black Caucus or a Black and Latino - the Black and Congressional Hispanic Caucus are very closely aligned on a lot of issues. So what do you think is missing as a way to discuss these issues? Is it that there's doesn't seem to be a way for black folks to talk about their grievances without being aligned with people who they consider racist? Or…

Ms. KAPLAN: That was a very different time, of course. And there was a clear and presumed black agenda that King was working from. And when you have that, you can, you know, reach out to other folks and it's not threatening. But now, we don't - black people and the black political leadership or any leadership does not have that agenda. It is not clear. So collaboration is much more muddy. And even though, politically, black and Latinos are aligned - you're right, on many political issues, those issues are not connecting to the people in the street to, you know, to everyday concerns…

MARTIN: But forgive me, Erin, is it not that - is it perhaps the African-Americans are acting like any other established group with advantages? Is it they don't want to give up any advantages? Or that they feel that, you know, whatever their piece of the pie is, yeah, they don't want to share it?

Ms. KAPLAN: Right. Well, you know, I think it's a little more complicated than that. I don't know if I'd call it an advantage. Certainly, a piece of the pie. And certainly, they feel very threatened simply because their number, you know, their - we don't have as many elected officials. Our numbers are going down, you know, in a government. And that, you know, because we don't have a lot of advantages, that feels very threatening. Just the fact that we are getting fewer and fewer…

MARTIN: In Los Angeles.

Ms. KAPLAN: In Los Angeles and, you know, in the whole state of California.

MARTIN: Erin, what would you like to see happen? You're talking about the way that there's really no comfortable way to talk about these things without…

Ms. KAPLAN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What? You know, I don't know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …getting everybody all worked up or, you know. What would you want to have happened? How do you talk about things like this in a way that's actually productive? I mean, who should be in charge of that? Who should do that?

Ms. KAPLAN: We should just appoint a czar to deal with that kind of thing. I really don't know, Michel. It's - I think we have lost the language of racial justice. We don't talk on those terms anymore. We talk about economic justice, if we talk about that at all.

The problem now is that when people, when black people talk about what they need, people immediately - I mean, we don't like to talk about race anyway and we have been moving away from that, so it's very, very difficult for black people anywhere - political folks, or folks in the street - just to talk about a quote, unquote, black agenda and what those issues are, because people just don't want to talk about it anymore. And they don't really want to address it. They'd rather talk about it in some other way. So there's that - that's, to me, is the biggest tension, not just in L.A., but nationally. How do we - or do we even want to talk about what's wrong with black America?

MARTIN: Gustavo, what do you think? What would you like to do differently? Or do you feel, maybe just this problem works itself out…

Mr. ARELLANO: Again, I'm…

MARTIN: …as people just spend more time together.

Mr. ARELLANO: Yeah, I'm an optimist. I do think that things are going to work out. It's always worked on the past between groups. In some cases, groups that didn't even speak English as a first language, you would have Italians versus Poles, you know, duking it out on the streets of New York or Chicago, and it's going to - it's just inevitable.

And again, I would really put the onus on Latinos, on specifically people of Mexican descent to agree that there is something inherent in Mexican culture that would make us predisposed to being a bit prejudiced against African-Americans. Once we're able to accept that, then, from there, we could, you know, we could start the conversation.

And when I bring up that point, I get a lot of complaints from the, you know, Mexican-American activists that say why are you calling Mexicans racists? You know, it's not our problem that that's happened. And I said, no, it is our problem. Just examine Mexican culture, and you really accept that there is a problem. Once we can deal with that, then I think we could really start having a discussion.

MARTIN: Gustavo Arellano is a regular contributor to our program. He is author of the column and book, "Ask a Mexican." He joined us by phone from San Diego. And Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times opinion page. She spoke to us from NPR West.

Gustavo, Erin - thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ARELLANO: Thanks as always, Michel.

Ms. KAPLAN: Thank you, Michel.

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