Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Black and Latino: The Unspoken Tale of Race Wars in California

One early morning in 1999, I got a message on my pager from someone who was a relative Chris Darden, the once famous member of the prosecution team in the OJ Simpson case of the mid 90s. I was told that his nephew was found unconsciousness in a dormitory cell in Pritchess Detention Center. The locals still called the prison by its former name, Wayside.

I was also told that there had been violent race riots between the Latinos and blacks for several days and the blacks, who were outnumbered by 15 to 1, were getting shanked, beaten unconscious, raped, and literally fighting for their lives, as the guards looked on. These riots would go on for months.

That call sparked about a two-month long string of stories regarding the race riots. I found out that the mostly Latino prison guards were supplying shanks and other weapons to Latino inmates in exchange for a piece of the drug money that the gangs profitted from outside of the prison walls.

There was also a program implemented a gang program called "Amer-I-Can" by former NFL hall-of-famer Jim Brown, to cease the racial rifts.

During my coverage of the riots, I spoke to dozens of black inmates and their relatives about what was going on. I began to hear that riots had already trickled down from the prisons to the county jails.

One story a relative of mine who went to jail told me that he was alerted by a fellow black inmate to get ready to rock and roll once they were in the holding tank. As soon as they were placed in the holding tank, fighting began.

In the end, we had learned that much of the reason was not race, but rather territory over drug selling and transporting. For years, the black gangs dominated in the sell of crack cocaine, but with the surge of Mexican immigrants and the flow of drugs through their home country, not only were Latinos of Southern California were more in numbers, but had a supply route that the now disorganized black gangs lost control of a long time ago.

What made the race riots racial, in my opinion, was the push by the Aaryan Brotherhood, the white supremacist group in the jails who sided with the Latino gangs. Their alliance and long-held agenda of ethnic cleansing prompted an all out war against all blacks who were locked up, be they gang affiliated or not, just like the Darden relative. Ironically, Aaryan's used a former enemy, Latinos to carry out what they could not do.

In California, the Mexican mafia forced an edict of an all-Latino alliance. And let me be clear, this is talking about Mexicans and Central Americans, not Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Columbians who have very different cultural and ethnic identifiers, especially because Boriquas, Cubanos and Columbians have significant African/black populations. However, there is discrimination in those places as well.

In all of my interviews, the prison inmates warned me over and over again, that the conflict would spill out into the streets. And it did.

For several summers there have been rumors of edicts of ethnic cleansings by Latino gang members to kill hundreds of black men during the summer. There are several communities in the harbor area of Los Angeles, where black folk, who are hard working, family-oriented people that are getting picked off by Latino gang members. In some communities, there are black residents that are scared to go outside in fear of getting killed.

In the high schools, years of race riots have changed the climates of many schools and student-teacher relationships.

I must emphasize in all of this, that this is not a one-sided issue of Latinos being the bully. For years, blacks and black gang members held contempt toward migrating Latinos whose numbers grew so rapidly that over half of the population resides in either California or Texas. This increase causes instantaneously conflict for those who are at the bottom.

In particular in the job and housing markets. Cheap Latino labor by mostly undocumented workers undercut the level of treatment for much of a black working class that was already struggling due to industries leaving cities like Compton and Watts. At the same time, slum lords rented out rundown houses and apartments to Latinos who were vulnerable to any type of abuse due to their undocumented status.

Many black people were extremely hostile to these streams of Latinos, but pointed their fingers in the wrong direction. The real culprit, Ronald Reagan, the former Governor of California and then President of the US who created a climate that allowed cheap, exploitable labor to flood into the state.

As a result, the antagony that some blacks projected onto Latinos created a clashing relationship between the two groups that have been passed onto other generations.

Another thing, many people don’t know about is the serious colorism and cultural war in Mexico itself. For years, majority of the immigrants were lighter-skinned or very fare Mexicans. However, within the last 15 years, the population has gotten darker. Those Mexicans in the rural south and in indigenous villages have started to migrate as well. These darker, and some, very dark or black skinned peoples are discriminated against in Mexico and are the subject to the worst forms of brutality. Moreso, some of these indigenous people don’t even speak Spanish, and often suffer under dominant Mexican ideology and culture.

Another thing I must add is that the conflict between Latinos and blacks is more prominent in Southern California than the north, but trust me it still exists. For much of Californias development, blacks and Latinos were inextricably linked to all civil rights causes. Communities were formed and alliances were forged. These have held tighter in the Bay Area, where activism such as the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets, and the Chicano Movement recognized the importance of unity.

Needless to say, the race war between Latinos and blacks is very complicated, but at the heart of the issue is that you have two of most powerful groups in the state of California bickering over crumbs, while both are being locked up disproportionately, and the communities are totally neglected and underserved.

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