Blacks, Latinos Discuss Differences in Los Angeles

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In Los Angeles, leaders of the black and Latino communities are talking about immigration, competition for jobs and how many traditionally black neighborhoods are now mostly Latino.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Los Angeles, the debate over illegal immigration has highlighted long-simmering tensions between African Americans and Latino immigrants. There's competition for jobs and across L.A. many historically black neighborhoods are now predominantly Latino. This week, leaders of both communities came together for a frank discussion about the impact and the future of illegal immigration.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

The gathering took place in the back room of a coffeehouse is Lemmert(ph) Park, the cultural heart of black Los Angeles. Political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who put the meeting together, said he was disturbed by the silence in the African-American community on the immigration issue.

Mr. EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON (Political Commentator): And I've also been disturbed too because over the last few days I've gotten so many calls from a number of community people saying that quote-unquote "the Latinos are taking over." What are we going to do? What does this mean for us?

JAFFE: Always the minority in L.A., many African Americans have felt even more marginalized by the booming Latino population here. Blacks have been the targets of racial brawls in high schools and county jails.

Najee Ali, who leads a group called Project Islamic Hope, says you can feel the antagonism on the streets as well.

Mr. NAJEE ALI (Project Islamic Hope, Los Angeles): We're living through what I call a low-level race riot. And that's something I'm not just saying to, you know, scare people.

JAFFE: But panelist Pilar Marrero, a columnist for the Spanish language daily La Opinion, said she didn't think the situation was so dire.

Ms. PILAR MARRERO (Columnist, La Opinion): And even though we've had tensions every day, every day there's also hundreds of thousands of Latinos and African Americans that live side-by-side together, that they go to school together, they marry, they have relationships, they have kids together.

JAFFE: But after a couple of minutes she was interrupted by an unidentified woman standing in the back of the room.

Unidentified Woman: How are we supposed to talk with you guys, when a lot of you guys don't even want to speak English? And quite frankly, just sort of this arrogance around not even wanting to learn to speak English.

JAFFE: Arrogance has nothing to do with it, said Marrero.

Ms. MARRERO: You're probably talking about new immigrants who haven't had a chance to learn. It's not that they don't want to learn; they would love to learn.

JAFFE: There was unanimity here on one point; everyone opposed the immigration bill passed in the House that would make felons of illegal immigrants and those who help them.

Randy Jurado Ertill heads a social services agency for immigrants in Pasadena.

Mr. RANDY JURADO ERTILL (Social Services Worker): We need to find a comprehensive approach of, a humanitarian approach to helping to legalize people who are here working and following the law anyway.

JAFFE: Half a million people who want exactly that filled the streets of downtown L.A. last weekend. Najee Ali noted there were few, if any, black faces in that crowd.

Mr. ALI: A majority of blacks I've come in contact with the last few days said this fight is not our fight. Okay, but is it our fight? Of course it's our fight! Any civil rights cause in this country has always been championed by African Americans, our ancestors. So blacks must continue to be the moral voice and conscience of this nation.

JAFFE: Blacks and Latinos have a lot of issues in common, said Ali; fighting police abuse, gangs, discrimination.

Lita Herron, head of Mothers on the March, said what the two communities have in common is even more fundamental than that.

Ms. LITA HERRON (Mothers on the March): And that's to pay our rent, feed our children, live inside, not to be forced to live into the parks.

JAFFE: But it's those very things they have in common, suggested Herron, that drive African Americans and Latinos apart as they compete for survival in a tough city.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And you can read about the impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy at npr.org.

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