Roger Owen Green left a comment on my bloggy a bit of time ago that had me thinking. Since around 2001, the media has been expressing their perpetual shock that Latinos actually constituted a significant portion of the U.S. population. Indeed, they couldn’t believe that Latinos had somehow displaced African Americans as the largest “minority” in many parts of the nation.
Americans hate talking about race/racism as much as I loathe talking about NASCAR. Talking about racism makes some people uncomfortable because they believe that even acknowledging racial difference would somehow implicate them as racist.
Yet, the U.S. also has an obsession with racial tensions. I can’t help but feel that the news outlets want a gang scuffle to erupt between Latinos and African Americans. They want the great ratings that urban riots always create. Each new announcement about Latinos’ population growth brings the media one step closer to being that obnoxious kid who raised trouble on the playground.
“Hey, African-American-folk,” one can imagine NBC news saying, “Latino-Folk told me that they are the nation’s biggest minority now. What do you say about that? Yeah, Latino-Folk are talking all sorts of smack. Latino-Folk said that their father could kick your father’s ass. Are you just going to take that?”
Then NBC news runs to the swings, where Latino Folk hang out. “Yo, Latino Folk,” NBC says breathlessly, “African-American Folk say that you are keeping wages down. They also talked about your mama. They said that your mama’s legs are like the Red Sea: They both have been parted one too many times. Don’t you defend your mama’s honor? Get over there and kick their ass.”
Much to the dismay of network news, large scale animosity has yet to develop between African Americans and Latinos. This is not to say that the two groups have a perfect relationship (which they don’t – trust me), but neither side seems to care as much as the news would like. Most African Americans seem unconcerned about changing demographics. “What?” They ask, “Latino Folk are the largest minority now? Okay – whatever. Tell them good luck with that. It didn’t really do great things for us for the past two hundred years.”
The media is so hungry for dissent between the two groups that is has mostly ignored the real efforts by African Americans and Latinos to cooperate in various communities. It doesn’t take an extra eye to see that these two groups grapple with many of the same problems because of the ways that economic class and race have been linked in this nation.
In the mid 1990s, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) started a massive campaign in Los Angeles and other urban areas known as Justice for Janitors. The campaign looked to unite custodial employees who clean high-rise buildings, hospitals, and other public zones. During a period when union membership declined, the SEIU had astounding success in recruiting new members. Not surprisingly given the racial composition of service employees, SEIU’s newly emerging membership drew on both Latinos and African Americans.
This union’s success hinged on articulating a joint cause between African Americans and Latinos. Rather than playing one off the other, Union leaders argued that African Americans and Latinos could only improve their working conditions if they worked together. In their official mission statement, SEIU states that economic justice “means building stronger communities and getting involved in the fight for affordable health care, immigration rights, racial equality, and equal opportunity for all.” SEIU has more immigrant members than any other union in the U.S.
Rather than being swept up in the fervor of who gets to be America’s favorite minority, we need to pay closer attention to what actual people are doing to address the problems in the nation. As with many things, the media simply misses most of the story.