Problems Close to Home



Washington. -- On television, it was just like any street riot -- angry crowd stoning police, ransacking stores, setting cars afire -- so anyone flipping channels last Sunday or Monday night may have assumed he was passing by another typical evening in some faraway capital of the Third World.

In this case, the burning was three miles from my house, two miles from the White House, yet it was in a country foreign to both me and the president. To either of us, to the District of Columbia government, to Congress, to Washington's mainstream media, it might as well have been Beirut.

The citizens of this city, and most American cities, know less about the growing Hispanic communities among them than they do about the homeless Kurds along the border of Turkey and Iran. We know less about them than we did about the life of black Americans in the days when segregation was the norm.

By the end of this century, those Hispanics will be the nation's largest minority group. We will have learned little from history if recognizing their plight and their rights requires as much trauma as the civil rights movement did a generation ago.

The rioting here last week was set off when a black policewoman tried to arrest a Hispanic man for drinking on the street, he allegedly pulled a knife, and she shot him. Young Hispanics in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood poured into the streets in protest. Police cars arriving seemed to provoke more violence, which spread to the Adams-Morgan area nearby. Peace came only after Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon ordered a curfew on the third night.

As in so many public protests, the rioters themselves seemed bent merely on malicious destruction and defiance of police. Black and white youths from beyond the neighborhood joined in for the fun of it. But those who spoke for the crowd complained about much more than the shooting that started the violence.

Hispanics in Washington are ignored, they said. There should be more Hispanic police officers, and more non-Hispanic officers should speak Spanish. There should be more Hispanics in local politics. The top post in the city Office of Latino Affairs has been unfilled since before Mayor Dixon was sworn in. There must be jobs and decent housing.

Change the language references, and the demands are exactly like those heard from protesters across the land 25 and 30 years ago. But then, blacks were demanding recognition and justice from whites. Now, Hispanics are demanding those things from blacks.

Here and in other major cities, blacks now run the government and hold most of the public jobs. Political power has not brought them economic equality or lifted the curse of the ghetto, but time has brought another minority in beneath them on the socio-economic ladder.

Washington's mayor, the chief of police and the policewoman in this controversy are black. They are the targets at whom anger is aimed, appeals directed. But they are only symbols of the schism between blacks and Hispanics, which grows more intense as the national recession runs on.

Some blacks -- and whites -- resent the fact that demands are made by Hispanics many of whom are not U.S. citizens, who are here illegally. They are frustrated by the fact that many Hispanic immigrants make no effort to learn English, thus handicapping themselves and locking themselves in the Spanish-speaking ghetto.

Because many Hispanics are here illegally, they take restaurant, hotel, construction and domestic jobs at sub-minimum wages without standard benefits, because they fear that complaining will disclose their status and get them deported. That becomes a grievance both for them and for blacks who assert that illegals are undercutting them for less-skilled jobs.

At the same time, partly because they are newcomers, often illegal, Hispanics as a group are less plugged into the welfare system. A higher percentage of them is actively seeking work, so the recession in the construction and hotel industry hits them disproportionately hard.

Their problems are real, their numbers are growing, and though one street riot may look like another on television, they are not half a world away. That so many do not speak English guarantees rising antagonism in the future. So does the fact that so many of the rest of us can neither speak Spanish nor see Hispanics.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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