View all Articles
Commentary By Steven Malanga

The Great Black-Hispanic Split

Culture Race

Fierce fighting over the minority vote may be the real surprise of the '08 Democratic race, with many blacks gravitating to Sen. Barack Obama and Hispanics to Sen. Hillary Clinton. But this split isn't just about these candidates; it's been a long time coming.

The tensions have many sources, but the one few analysts discuss is immigration.

Growing anger over the way Hispanic immigration is changing their neighborhoods has prompted many African-Americans to rethink the notion of a rainbow coalition. Meanwhile, surveys show that many US Hispanics mistrust African-Americans and see themselves as more like whites than like blacks.

In fact, black unease about immigration goes back to the 19th century, when former slave Frederick Douglass warned that immigrants were displacing free blacks in the labor market. Many blacks supported the 1892 federal law that restricted Chinese immigration and later urged restrictions on Mexican workers. "If the million Mexicans who have entered the country have not displaced Negro workers, whom have they displaced?" asked black journalist George Schuyler in 1928.

But the 1960s brought a big change in the views of black political leaders, after congressional supporters of liberalizing immigration claimed the civil-rights mantle for their reforms. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that blacks and poor immigrants could become political allies. Later, Jesse Jackson heralded the imminent arrival of a mighty "rainbow" coalition of blacks and immigrants and touted such liberal policies as amnesty for illegals.

Such views clearly helped soften anti-immigration attitudes in the African-American community. But since immigration re-ignited as a national issue in 2006, black anger has clearly grown.

When columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote a series of pieces sympathizing with illegal aliens, the volume of hostile mail from other blacks shocked him. Illegal immigration has sizzled as a topic on African-American stations like satellite radio XM's "The Power," with most callers demanding more restrictions.

Recent polling data suggest the shift. A 2006 Pew Center national survey found that, in urban areas where blacks and Latinos live close together, blacks were likelier to favor cutting immigration levels.

Behind the anger is the rapid change that Hispanic immigration (legal and illegal) is working on longtime black locales. Places like South Los Angeles have transformed almost overnight into majority-Latino communities.

And new immigrants have also surged beyond magnets like California and New York to Southern states. Since 1990, North Carolina's Hispanic population has exploded from 77,000 to nearly 600,000, the majority ethnically Mexican.

This Latino inpouring has intensified the feeling among blacks that they're losing economic ground to immigrants. While research done in the wake of '60s reforms found that immigration had only a small influence on black economic performance, the effects have grown more pronounced as the immigrant population has ballooned six or seven times over the last four decades.

A recent study by Harvard economist George Borjas and others estimates that immigration accounted for a 7.4 percentage-point decline in the employment rate of unskilled black males from 1980 to 2000. Says Joe Hicks, former chair of Los Angeles' Human Rights Commission: "It's hard to find a black face on a construction site or in a fast-food restaurant around here anymore. People from the black community have noticed."

The Latino influx into formerly black-majority urban neighborhoods has sparked deadlier kinds of conflict. While most violent crime in these areas is still black on black or Latino on Latino, interethnic violence is mounting. Blacks are just 9 percent of Los Angeles County but were the victims of 59 percent of all racially motivated attacks in 2006, many by Hispanics.

Some observers have even begun talking about "black flight" from Latino migration. In Los Angeles, the black population fell by some 123,000 in the last 15 years, while the Hispanic cohort jumped by more than 450,000.

Blacks' anger is also rising because they realize that many Latinos hold intensely negative stereotypes about them. In a 2006 study of various racial groups' attitudes in Durham, N.C., 59 percent of Latino immigrants said that few or no blacks were hardworking; 57 percent said that few or no blacks could be trusted. By contrast, 9 percent of whites said that blacks weren't hardworking, and only 10 percent said that they couldn't be trusted.

The rising tensions between African-Americans and Hispanics render the old hopes of a black-brown coalition chimerical, especially as blacks realize that Latino political gains come at their expense. A research paper by Frank Morris of Morgan State University and James Gimpel of the University of Maryland estimates that Hispanic candidates could win as many as six US House seats that blacks now hold.

This portends problems for the Democratic Party. Courting the growing Hispanic vote, almost all top Democratic leaders in Washington support liberal immigration policies, including some form of amnesty. Republicans are missing an opportunity, thinks Vanderbilt University political scientist Carol Swain. "Some Republicans have positions on immigration that would resonate in the black community, but only a few have tried to take advantage of black anger on immigration," she says.

Black politicians, noticing the growing anger in their communities, have started to shun the immigration debate. Major civil-rights organizations didn't participate in the Latino marches and protests in favor of amnesty last spring. Blacks could play a far more decisive role, though, if their political leaders feel threatened enough to actively pursue tougher immigration policies.

Such a move wouldn't be unprecedented. In the late '80s, blacks reacted bitterly when Congress proposed an amnesty for illegals. That prompted the Congressional Black Caucus to ensure that the final bill included tough sanctions against employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers. (Court challenges eventually watered down the sanctions.)

Today, black America appears to be in the throes of a more profound shift in attitudes—one that could make the African-American voter a crucial part of the immigration debate. The Obama-Clinton battling is likely just the start.

Adapted from the latest issue of City Journal (, where Steven Malanga is a senior editor.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post