Census numbers can be twisted

March 23, 2001|By Andrea Lewis

SAN FRANCISCO -- Pitting one disadvantaged group against another is an old trick. No sooner had the first data from the 2000 Census been released than reporters and analysts began predicting that America's changing demographics would mean an increase in tensions between blacks and Latinos.

On March 9, The Associated Press forecast that "the surge in America's Hispanic population will inevitably cause more friction with blacks and other groups as the Hispanics push for more political power to go with their increased numbers." Similarly, a March 19 Chicago Tribune headline drew sharp battle lines, stating that the "Hispanic Influx in Deep South Causes Tensions -- With Blacks."

The AP article quotes Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who says that this population growth "leads to the potential of a stronger Latino community and to more Latino elected officials."

On the African-American side, Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, is quoted as saying that "there will be a little bit of jostling" between blacks and Hispanics but that "we should concentrate on areas of common interest. In coalition, there is strength."

Hardly a call to arms.

This is not to dismiss the reality of inter-ethnic tensions or to say that there aren't profound social and psychological implications in the notion that Latinos will soon displace African-Americans as the largest American minority.

There's also no denying that the sentiment among many blacks is that white America has never fully and effectively dealt with its shameful history of relations with African-Americans. As blacks potentially begin to wield even less political and economic clout, they worry that this debt will never be repaid.

Those factors, however, don't spell an end to the long legacy of shared political struggles between communities of color on such fronts as labor, economic and environmental justice, affordable housing and race discrimination. The civil-rights movement, the farm-workers union drive and the effort to defend affirmative action have all relied on the close cooperation between blacks and Latinos.

I doubt that blacks and Latinos will spend the next 10 years fighting over the scraps dropped from the table of the white establishment. We have more important things to do, such as fighting racial profiling, protecting ourselves against hate crimes and securing a living wage.

Where issues of race and ethnicity are concerned, the media coverage is often inconsistent.

Why, for instance, was so much early attention focused on tensions between browns and blacks while little mention was made of the overall increase in minority populations when compared with whites? For example, the Chicago Tribune article focused not on the reaction of whites to the influx of Latinos but on the reaction of blacks.

Where were all the headlines announcing that "Whites Are Losing Ground to People of Color" or quotes from white politicians discussing their fears of perhaps having to share some of their entrenched power with increasing numbers of people of color?

By using the census figures to drive a wedge between blacks and Latinos, such news stories did both communities a disservice.

Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based writer and co-host of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org, or by writing to Progressive Media Project, 409 E. Main St., Madison, Wis. 53703.

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