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Shades of Brown 

Blacks, Latinos and the Triangle's changing face

Surely I know you
yet our eyes bear questions
curious tensions
conjured by an unwitting familiarity

Surely I've seen you
in deeply buried images of a collective memory
Painful bonding amid searing-hot whips and ice-cold chains
Blood-oaths forged by tortured souls in tortured flesh

Surely I feel you
Your claims of identity, your thirst for struggle
long, relentless as the Nile
flowing in common blood
buoying our collective spirit

Surely I am you
for if I fix upon your eyes
long enough,
deep enough ...
I see me.


The ability to truly see each other is a key component of any positive relationship. And right now, perhaps no other relationship is as important to the future of our state as the one being forged between Latinos and African Americans in North Carolina.

It's important because communities across the state that have traditionally been dominated by whites and African Americans are becoming more ethnically diverse. According to Census 2000 figures, the number of people in the state identifying themselves as "Hispanic/Latino" quadrupled over the past decade to 379,000.

Here in the Triangle, Latinos now make up more than 6 percent of the population, surpassing Asians as the area's second-largest minority group behind African Americans. Steadily increasing Hispanic contingencies in Wake, Chatham and Durham counties have led the way. In Durham, this rapid growth has combined with a declining number of non-Hispanic whites to create, for the first time, an "all-minority" city---a city where no one racial or ethnic group can claim to be the majority.

Judging from current trends, it's apparent that the rest of the Triangle, and the state as a whole, are increasingly becoming more like Durham. But for established African-American communities, the multicultural transformation has special weight.

Eddie Lawrence, director of the state's Human Relations Commission, notes that many African Americans are afraid that the state's changing demographics will leave blacks on the margins when it comes to dividing up power, resources and services. "We have to make sure that everybody is brought to the table," Lawrence says. "But in the process, we have to be careful that we don't displace one population for another."

Nolo Martinez, head of Hispanic/Latino Affairs for Gov. Mike Easley, sees the situation this way: "There is an establishment of people in power, both African American and white, that have traditionally represented Hispanic constituencies," he says. While acknowledging that African Americans, especially, have "struggled to be there," Martinez notes, "there is a new population that wants to get involved and represent their own constituencies and people."

"Right now people are asking a lot of questions," says Ajamu Dillahunt, a Raleigh-based labor organizer and leader of Black Workers for Justice.

Dillahunt notes that a significant number of the region's lifelong black residents have not been exposed to cultures outside of blacks and whites. This lack of familiarity, he says, spurs "natural tensions" and causes many natives to wonder what the arrival of immigrants means for jobs, housing and social relations in general.

Martinez attests to the power of perception in exacerbating tensions between blacks and Latinos. Take, for example, the rash of well-publicized robberies committed mainly by African Americans against Latino immigrants in Durham in recent years. "People would say that 'African Americans don't like Hispanics and they are really going after them,'" Martinez says. But the real issue, he adds, was how many Latino immigrants handled their money--commonly keeping their earnings stashed under mattresses or on their person--and how a few opportunistic criminals took advantage of that.

Despite the tensions--both real and perceived--there are many examples of dialogue and bridge-building between the two communities.

Lawrence, of the Human Relations Commission, points to several state initiatives aimed at fostering positive relations, including a program co-sponsored by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation that trains "crisis response teams" to manage racial and ethnic tensions that flare up in communities.

Another effort to promote intercommunity dialogue is "Neighborhood Voices: New Immigrants in Northeast Central Durham," an oral history project coordinated through the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. By recording the verbatim views of longtime black residents and recent Latino immigrants to Durham, the project--which is written in English and Spanish--hopes to provoke constructive communication between the two groups (see "Neighborhood Voices").

Dillahunt's Black Workers for Social Justice is one of several organizations taking part in the African-American/Latino Alliance, a new coalition between black and Latino workers-rights activists. Along with such mutual concerns as workers' rights, police brutality and racial profiling, Dillahunt feels common ground can be reached on what he refers to as the "equality of languages." Many Latinos are now facing strict requirements for English proficiency in education and jobs. "For blacks who can't relate, they need to realize that we were stripped of our languages as well," Dillahunt says.

Ultimately, Dillahunt feels such awareness and cooperation will go a long way toward promoting solidarity among the two cultures.

"I'm pretty optimistic," he says. "I'm not so idealistic that I feel all of our problems will be resolved, but at least if people are aware and there is a willingness to take some action, then things will get better in North Carolina."

This year's annual Black Culture issue focuses on the nature and direction of black/Latino relations in our region. As we do each July, we've assembled a group of local black writers to tackle a theme of importance to our communities. What follows are articles that explore both sides of the situation--the cultural collisions between blacks and Latinos, as well as efforts to forge new alliances.

Indy columnist Derek Jennings looks at the controversies swirling around workplace relations between the two groups, while Cynthia Greenlee focuses on intercommunity programs aimed at building cross-cultural bridges. Emma Martin shares a personal account of her struggle to gain acceptance from both sides of her black/Latino heritage.

As our writers have discovered, it's not easy to define the current state of black/Latino relations. EndBlock


Neighborhood Voices

The following excerpts are from a new book, Neighborhood Voices, that focuses on the impact of Latino immigration on Northeast Central Durham. Researchers interviewed Latinos about their experience as immigrants, and African-American residents about the changes in their neighborhoods. The book was edited and written by Jill Hemming, Alicia Rouverol, Angela Hornsby, Katushka Olave and Jacqueline Wagstaff, and coordinated by the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. For copies call 560-8225.

You're talking about a whole different culture that you want me to trust myself with. No, no, no, no. That's taking me out of my comfort zone first of all, and then you are asking me to do something I don't understand because I don't speak Spanish.

--Martina Dunford

What I don't like? What can I say? I don' like the black people; sometimes they look at us saying: "You are nothing." That's what I don't like. Because I find that people don't like us. Besides that everything is OK. The racism is the only think I don't like, because they make us feel like we are not the same.

--Gloria Quintanilla

Basically people want fair and decent housing. They want jobs that provide decent income. They want safe neighborhoods for their kids to grow up. They want decent education. Basically the goals are the same for all of us. I don't think there's much of a difference. That's my perspective. I just think the way we perceive it is the only difference, you know.

--Jacqueline Wagstaff

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