Soundings

William J. Stern
Blacks vs. Latinos
Does Los Angeles’s recent mayoral election reveal an emerging trend in urban politics?
Summer 2001

In the June 5 run-off in Los Angeles’s mayoral race, James K. Hahn trounced fellow Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, a hard-left "progressive" who was seeking to become the first Latino mayor since the late nineteenth century of this now nearly half-Hispanic city. The key to success for Hahn, who is white, was winning a surprising 80 percent of the black vote, offsetting the huge majority of Latinos who voted for his opponent.

The racially divided results certainly don’t fit the left’s playbook. Aren’t blacks and Hispanics—two "oppressed peoples of color"—supposed to unite in solidarity? Un-PC as it is to say, the Los Angeles election brings to mind an old Lenny Bruce joke: "We need brotherhood in New York. Let’s all of us Italian, Jewish, and Irish guys get together and beat up the Puerto Ricans."

The politics of the municipal welfare state is what’s driving a wedge between blacks and Hispanics in Los Angeles and in many other cities—including New York, where Latino mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer’s hoped-for coalition between the two minority groups exists only in his head. The big, social services- and welfare-focused urban governments of the last several decades haven’t dampened racial and ethnic conflict, as defenders claim, but fanned it. Urban government today is a taxpayer-financed spoils system that offers jobs, contracts, favors, and other perks to the well-connected. Urban blacks and Hispanics have traditionally organized along racial lines in the hunt for this government treasure. As Latinos have grown in population and power, blacks have become increasingly uneasy: the treasure is finite, especially in these more budget-conscious days—so what one group wins, another loses. "There’s a certain rose-colored-glasses unwillingness to talk about it, but [the distrust is] there, and it’s real," Harry P. Pachon, president of a Latino think tank, recently told the New York Times.

The struggle between blacks and Latinos for a place at the welfare-state trough presents an ideal opportunity for Republicans to make a bold case for a rival politics of urban economic growth in which everyone can win. Republicans can argue that such groups as the Asians and the West Indians, who have aggressively sought opportunity in America’s dynamic market economy, have fared far better than groups that have sought upward mobility through the static welfare state, where those who got there before you are always in your way.

Hispanics, in particular—who’ve shown themselves willing to vote Republican in the past—might be open to this optimistic message.

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