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Orlando Sentinel

Hispanics Reshape Civil-Rights Agenda

By Jeff Kunerth and Sherri M. Owens

July 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

On the national stage and in the local arena, blacks and Hispanics are engaged in a subtle, elaborate courtship that could change minority relations in this country for years to come.

Two of the nation’s high-profile black leaders, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have turned the Navy’s use of the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, for a bombing-practice range into a civil-rights issue.

And in Osceola County, the local NAACP chapter has picked a Hispanic as its vice president.

As the Hispanic population surpasses the black population in Florida and the nation, civil-rights issues in America are taking on a Spanish accent.

"The new demographics just forces the issue that we have to abandon the narrow way of looking at things in a black-and-white framework," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C. "Civil rights needs to grow beyond the old paradigm and become more diverse and inclusive."

Noting the 58 percent increase in the nation’s Hispanic population in the 1990s, predominately black organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League are increasing their efforts to recruit Hispanic members by addressing issues of importance to them.

Finding common ground

In many instances, leaders from those groups say, the issues are the same.

"There are major issues that confront our communities -- education, discrimination, unemployment," said Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, based in New York with affiliates in more than 100 cities including Orlando. "We will move faster if we coalesce."

June Jack, on the job

June Jack, a stylist at Euro Designs in Eatonville, says he has seen up close the discrimination some Hispanics face. Jack, who is black, graduated in 1989 from Oak Ridge High School, where he estimates the student population was equal parts black and Hispanic.

"I see them getting harassed," said Jack, 29. "They have police issues. They get profiled. They get low-wage jobs. I’m for anything that will make a positive difference for everybody."

Making life better for all is the goal of the NAACP in its efforts to include more Hispanics, said Gerald Bell, president of the Orange County branch: "We are reaching out to Hispanics because we have some of the same issues. If we don’t form some kind of unity, neither of us will get anywhere."

Diversity in the NAACP

In Osceola, where the Hispanic population grew 294 percent in the 1990s, the strategy is working. Whites and Hispanics comprise a third of the NAACP’s membership.

The two minority groups, each of which now represents about 12.5 percent of the overall U.S. population, come together often to deal with common issues such as discrimination, affirmative action, and voting rights.

"We participate very closely with the Rainbow Coalition and the NAACP and Urban League on issues across the board," said Brent A. Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Mexican-American civil-rights organization in Washington. "Yes, Hispanics are surpassing blacks in population, but that just means more allies for blacks, not more enemies."

Demographic sea change

Blacks and Hispanics have a history of working together, but in the past Hispanics have always been the junior partner. That changed with the 2000 census, which declared Hispanics the nation’s largest minority, outnumbering blacks by 650,000.

In Florida, Hispanics outnumbered blacks by 400,000. Hispanics represent 16.8 percent of the state’s population; blacks constitute 14.6 percent.

With a younger population, higher birth rate, and large numbers of new arrivals from the Caribbean and Latin America, Hispanics will continue to widen their margin over blacks in the future.

Worries from blacks

Some people worry the growth of the Hispanic population could weaken the influence that blacks have fought to build.

Angela Anderson of Orlando fears that as blacks lose the numbers game, they will also lose access to opportunities earned from decades of hard work during the civil-rights movement.

Hispanics, said Anderson, don’t face the same level of discrimination as blacks.

"A lot of Hispanics don’t even consider themselves a minority. They consider themselves white," said Anderson, 30, an insurance-agency representative who thinks black civil-rights groups should continue to focus primarily on the needs of African Americans.

Price said services of the National Urban League have always been available to anyone of any background. The group’s mission statement, however, still shows a focus on blacks: "The mission of the Urban League movement is to enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity and power and civil rights."

As civil-rights groups, recognizing the shift in numbers, have ratcheted their efforts to make Hispanics feel welcomed, efforts by Jackson and Sharpton to embrace the hot-button issue of Vieques strikes some Hispanics more as political grandstanding than a genuine concern for Hispanic interests.

"It’s a high-profile issue, and that’s how those two do things. One Puerto Rican was killed in a bombing accident two years ago, but at the same time 400 people die on the Mexican border," Wilkes said. "I don’t see Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton down there."

United but separate?

Rafael Greaux, a Puerto Rican jeweler in Orlando, said he doesn’t think the efforts by leaders such as Jackson and Sharpton will do much to unify blacks and Hispanics.

Rafael Greaux, skeptical

"They are creating it to be a racial issue when it doesn’t have anything to do with race," said Greaux, 36, who grew up on the island of St. Thomas near Vieques. "I don’t see Latin people and blacks having a lot in common."

Rather than have Hispanics folded into groups that historically have focused on blacks, some think it might be more beneficial to both groups if they each have their own organizations. The organizations could come together to deal with common causes but would remain separate so they could focus on other issues, too.

"If the idea is that the NAACP says they speak for Latinos, that is absurd and counterproductive. If it means they want to work with us as equal partners, we can get some good business done," Yzaguirre said.

Black organizations often have different civil-rights priorities than Hispanic groups. Immigration and bilingual education, for example, are big issues for many Hispanics, but neither is a high priority for blacks. African Americans, in fact, often see immigration as a threat to jobs held by blacks and tend to side with whites in opposition to bilingual education.

But as the number of Hispanics continues to grow, their concerns are expected to reshape the American civil-rights debate. In exchange for Hispanic support on issues of importance to blacks, African Americans will need to back programs and policies dear to Hispanics, said former State Rep. Anthony Suarez, the first Hispanic elected to the Florida Legislature from Central Florida.

"Immigration is extremely important to all Hispanics, even Puerto Ricans, and it’s not a major emphasis for blacks. But it will be as coalitions are being built -- if you want me to care about your issue, you have to care about mine," Suarez said.

The redistricting debate

The first test for Central Florida in how blacks and Hispanics will work together -- or pull in opposite directions -- comes with the redrawing of congressional, legislative and local political districts.

Hispanics have signaled to the power brokers that they intend to be major players in redistricting. But blacks and Hispanics don’t always see eye to eye on the issue of creating minority districts.

"I think there are significant differences between minority groups over redistricting," Suarez said. "It appears the black community is fighting for black districts. I don’t think that will be the consensus of the Hispanics."

Suarez opposes "ghettoized Hispanic seats" where all the Hispanic voting power is concentrated in one or two districts. He favors districts in which Hispanics represent enough of the electorate to become the key swing voters. That way, Suarez said, all candidates will need to court the Hispanic vote to win.

Not all Hispanics agree with that strategy, however.

"Our experience is that unless it’s a Latino, we don’t get the attention our numbers would merit," said Yzaguirre, head of La Raza for 25 years.

Politicians going after the Hispanic vote are learning not to view Hispanics as one big monolithic minority, but as a coalition of ethnic groups united by language and the common ancestry of Spanish colonialism. Hispanics tend to think of themselves as Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Dominicans and the like.

Unity different for Hispanics

Blacks may no longer be the nation’s largest minority, but they are more homogenous than Hispanics. And to many Hispanics, that makes blacks seem much more unified and influential.

Renee Jackson of Ocoee said that’s because the groups that historically have represented blacks have been at it for decades -- the Urban League since 1910 and the NAACP since 1909.

She respects the forward-looking approach of the groups as they try to change with the times and more strongly embrace Hispanics.

"It’s to everyone’s advantage to come together," said Jackson, 45, who is black. "The power of a larger group carries more weight."

But given the various ethnic groups that fall under the Hispanic umbrella, coming together is not always easy.

"Spanish people don’t get together," said Ricardo Castillo, 46, a grocery-store owner from the Dominican Republic. "The Cubans pull their own way. The Puerto Ricans pull their way. The Dominicans, they pull their way. If they ever get together, they would be even stronger."

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