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Politics Mondays: Latino, African-American Violence On Rise Since Riots by Tanya Hernandez

Fifteen years ago on April 26, 1992, widespread civil unrest erupted in Los Angeles, following the not-guilty verdict in the trial of the four white police officers accused of using excessive force in the arrest of a black motorist named Rodney King. What have we learned about race relations 15 years after the Los Angeles riots?

Today Los Angeles is more racially diverse than ever and certainly one of the most diverse U.S. cities. And yet all is not well. Inter-ethnic violence in today's L.A. is centered upon the targeting of African-American residents by Latino street gangs operating with the goal of eradicating African-Americans from "Latino" spaces.

The murder of 14-year-old Cheryl Green on Dec. 15, 2006, was just the latest in Latino gang attacks on African-Americans with no gang affiliations themselves. At the same time, the involvement of gangs in Los Angeles has induced many to deny the racial import of the violence. Indeed, when I spoke with Denisse Rodarte and Sean Wright, two dynamic Angelenos filming a documentary about the black-Latino violence in Los Angeles, they expressed frustration with the vast numbers of residents who deny there is a racial problem and refuse to talk about it.

Yet longitudinal studies of hate crimes in Los Angeles County demonstrate a very clear racial aspect. When University of Hawaii professor Karen Umemoto conducted a statistical study of Los Angeles County law-enforcement data over a five-year period in the 1990s, she uncovered a number of disturbing patterns. First, there was a disproportionate rate of increase in the victimization of African-Americans as compared with other groups. The number of African-American victims increased by 70 percent, while the number of Asian-American and Pacific Islander victims increased 21 percent, the number of white victims increased by 6 percent, and the number of Latino victims decreased by 8.4 percent.

In contrast to the victimization trends, there was a slight decline in the number of reported African-American perpetrators, while there was an increase with all other groups. Latino perpetrators had the sharpest rise in number with a 59.2 percent increase.

Most disturbing, though, was the study's discovery that Latinos were disproportionately the perpetrators of bias crimes against African-Americans with no known gang affiliations.

The trend has continued through the present, as demonstrated by the August 2006 conviction of Latino gang members for a six-year conspiracy to assault and murder African-Americans in Highland Park. Thus, while intra-racial violence makes up the majority of violent incidents in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the overt racist motivations of these emerging inter-ethnic conflicts has justifiably created a public concern.

But how did Los Angeles come to such a state of affairs despite the augury of the 1992 unrest?

It is true that Latino social attitudes are in part informed by an anti-black sentiment that exists in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, but no other multiracial city has reported this level of anti-black Latino violence. To begin to understand the Los Angeles' context, it is centrally important to first disaggregate the position of Latino immigrants from that of U.S.-born Latinos.

While Latino immigrants have been documented to express negative views of African-Americans, and to demonstrate a preference for segregation from African-Americans, the violence in Los Angeles has been perpetuated by U.S.-born Latinos. It is U.S.-born Latinos who, in becoming Americanized, experience themselves as socially undesirable raced subjects. Those who are not wealthy enough or light-skinned enough to be permitted the social access of assimilation are seemingly locked into the urban poverty quagmire of underfinanced schools, inadequate health care and scarce employment opportunities.

At the same time that employers actively seek Latino immigrant labor for low-wage positions, low-skill-labor U.S. Latinos are excluded as a "less malleable" worker population. Indeed, the Americanization process provides English-speaking U.S.-born Latinos with greater information about worker rights. Moreover, U.S.-born Latinos have a sense of enhanced status as U.S.-educated applicants, and this in combination with their repeated exposure to rampant U.S. consumerism, disinclines them to seek the same low-wage jobs as Latino immigrants.

These trends result in a high rate of jobless U.S.-born Latino men on the street searching for status and meaning. This is a context ripe for gang culture. Living in segregated proximity to African-Americans, who are derided in Latin America as well as the United States, facilitates the notion that Latino status depends upon a clear separation from and removal of African-Americans from "Latino spaces."

In short, the violence in Los Angeles can be attributed to the social position U.S. Latinos find themselves in, in combination with their own anti-black bias. Only a renewed societal focus on combating the institutional forces of poverty and racism can yield a rosier report about inter-ethnic relations on the 15th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.

Tanya Hernandez is a professor of law at Rutgers University Law School.

Note: This article first appeared in The LA Daily News

Tanya Hernandez

Monday, April 30, 2007

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