Blacks, Whites, And Hispanics

Figuring It Out

As the Rio Grande flows ever more northward, and Spanish grows common on the streets of America, and tacos appear in the lunch counters of high schools along with the usual inedible fare, people worry that "the minorities" may one day be in the majority, and band together against whites. I wouldn't bet on it.

Sez me anyway, the tendency to view Hispanics and blacks as essentially identical, or at any rate as natural allies, is mistaken. The browns are more likely to join whites than oppose them.

I listen in the mornings to Radio Novecientos in Laurel, Maryland, 900 A.M., a Spanish station with a good morning-talk show. I used to watch Spanish television until I got rid of cable a couple of years ago. (The world was full of idiots, I figured, but I wasn't going to pay thirty-six dollars a month to look at them.)

It doesn't take much listening, or hanging out in Hispanic eateries, to realize that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be competitors, or even adversaries, than allies. The cultural gap is enormous, their approaches to life and society wildly different.

To begin with, Hispanics want to work. As a rule, blacks don't. Radio Novecientos regularly announces to its listeners that such-and-such an automotive repair outfit needs electricians with tools, call this number; or that Whatever Hospital wants cleaning women, or people to take care of the bedridden, or to work in day care, call another number. Hispanics want jobs. Any jobs.

I've never heard a black station announce jobs.

Overwhelmingly, testimony is that when Hispanics get a job, they do it. Whites respect them for it. I meet a fair number of people who hire unskilled or semiskilled labor. Without exception they report that Hispanics show up, work hard, and don't have attitudes. Blacks, say employers, don't show up, don't work hard, quit unexpectedly, and tend to be surly.

The result is that, hereabouts anyway, Hispanics have taken over the low-end job market. Blacks resent it. If Hispanics succeed in moving up, which they seem to have in mind, blacks will simply be bypassed. No alliance there.

Last week, Radio Novecientos asked callers, many of them on cell phones on the way to work, to recount their successes in this country. I didn't transcribe calls. The pattern was, "I'm Juan, and I came to this country eight years ago from El Salvador, and started as a busboy for Hyatt. Now I am assistant maintenance manager, and if I can get a little better in English, I think I will be the manager soon." Thus blows the wind.

Hispanic crime exists, angry Hispanics activists complaining of discrimination, friction between brown and white, Hispanic gangs, and Hispanics on welfare. They are not dominant in Hispanic discourse. The Hispanic media do not rail against America. The black media do.

The contrast of the Hispanic with the black approach to life is stark. Hispanics are active, assertive, believing that they can improve their circumstances by their own efforts. They are, remember, people who had the drive to make their way from Guatemala and swim the river. You don't hear much self-pity from them. Their energy has consequences. Go into black neighborhoods, and you will find the stores operated by Koreans. Drive the streets of suburban Washington, and you will see Hispanic restaurants and bodegas popping up. I don't know of a single black business (though there must be a few somewhere).

The passivity of blacks is crippling. They have learned that one gets things not by earning them, but by demanding them. If they demand money from Coca-Cola, they get it. If they demand more black faces on television, television turns black. If they can't pass tests for promotion, they demand that the tests be abandoned. If they just want money, they demand reparations. I'm not sure how they came to wield their enormous political power, but wield it they do. It works -- now.

But Hispanics are fast gaining political clout. If the two come into conflict, things will be interesting. Hispanics, I think, will feel little guilt over the difficulties of blacks.

The Hispanic preference for self-reliance over passive complaint appears in many venues. A frequent theme in the Spanish media is the high rate at which their kids drop out of school. The problem is serious, threatening their future in this country, and they know it. According to the host on Radio Novecientos, the kids drop out because they want to go to work and buy cars, or because they're intimidated by English. Whatever the reasons, they go.

Conspicuously, however, the Hispanic response is to ask, "What are we doing wrong, and how can we help our kids do better?" They don't blame Gringos for all their problems. Similarly, alcoholism is a plague among Hispanics. When they discuss it in the Spanish media, which they frequently do, the attitude is, "We drink too much. How can we stop?" not "Whitey did this to us."

By contrast, blacks protest that everything is someone else's fault. Drugs, for example, are a white plot to destroy blacks. In the long run, I suspect that people who face their problems will win over those who don't.

Finally, Hispanics want to be here (and want all their relatives to be here, which is a problem). At least in their public comment they speak of the US as a wonderful country, a land of opportunity, where everyone can have "a better life." The phrase constantly recurs: "una vida mejor." Blacks, at least in their public comment, don't like the US, describing it as a fundamentally evil, a land of oppression and lack of opportunity.

I don't see a lot of common ground between the two. To the extent that Hispanics succeed, whatever common ground there is will diminish. If Hispanics remain at the bottom of the economy, which I think unlikely, they will compete with blacks. If they rise, they will enter the mainstream. In which case, what's the problem?