Diversity has joined apple pie, motherhood, and the flag as a symbol of America. Many politicians cannot get through a stump speech without praising American diversity, and corporate CEOs boast of their diverse workforces. The idea that diversity is one of our country’s great strengths — even its greatest strength — now goes essentially unchallenged. And yet, even the most cursory examination of diversity’s effects on the United States shows that it is a terrible source of division and conflict, and that it brings no compensating advantages. How can anything so obviously untrue have gained mythic status?
When people praise diversity they may have different things in mind — diversity of language, religion, erotic orientation, culture — but diversity’s most important ingredient is race. A university could have 10 percent of its student body from ten different European countries, but it could not claim to be “diverse” because all the students would be white.
This country’s most agonizing conflicts revolve around race, and whatever they may claim to believe about integration, most Americans prefer not to cross racial lines. It is not hard to understand why. All that is required is a look at what happens when people, for whatever reason, find themselves in close contact with people unlike themselves.
Nevertheless, practically every American public figure from the president on down praises diversity. As George W. Bush noted when the US Supreme Court upheld the limited use of race in college admissions, “Diversity is one of America’s greatest strengths.” In a 2007 statement about Hispanic heritage he called on Americans to “celebrate the diversity that makes America stronger.” In a joint American-Brazilian statement in 2003, Mr. Bush said both countries were “forged from diverse cultures, proving that diversity is our strength.”
Former president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary are tireless promoters of diversity. Mr. Clinton once invited black columnists to the White House and told them, “We want to become a multiracial, multiethnic society. This will arguably be the third great revolution . . . to prove that we literally can live without . . . having a dominant European culture.” When Mrs. Clinton spoke at her former high school in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge she said she was glad to see so many non-white faces in the audience. “We didn’t have the wonderful diversity of people that you have here today,” she said. “I’m sad we didn’t have it, because it would have been a great value, as I’m sure you will discover.”
State officials take the same view. Then-governor of California, Gray Davis, noted in 2003 with unintended humor that “my vision is to make the most diverse state on earth, and we have people from every planet on the earth in this state.” In 2007, Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland said diversity is “our greatest strength as a people.” In 2003, Governor Gary Locke of Washington, who is Chinese-American, went farther: “In our diversity lies our humanity.” When Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York said, “Our city’s diversity is our greatest strength,” he was only repeating his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, who noted in his farewell address as mayor that “we’re a city in which our diversity is our greatest strength.”
The CIA values diversity. “At the Central Intelligence Agency, workforce diversity is a mission imperative,” the agency noted in a recruitment ad in Black Enterprise magazine. The even more secret National Security Agency has a website that explains, “Diversity gives us the power to conceive the inconceivable.” Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen, the top officer in the Navy from 2005 to 2007, explained, “Diversity is our strength. Let’s keep it strong.” In 2007, General George Casey, who was in command of American troops in Iraq from 2004 until 2007, announced, “I firmly believe the strength of our Army comes from our diversity.”
The private sector is equally committed. In 2008, no fewer than 352 companies vied to be included among the “Top 50 Companies for Diversity” selected by Diversity Inc magazine. JP Morgan Chase’s chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon sent a message explaining, “We’re committed to ensuring that diversity remains a key priority . . . our collective diversity is our strength.” Chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg of Verizon Communications said this: “What I want the company to be is relevant. If you’re not diverse you’re not relevant.” The top executives of all the competing companies sent similar statements.
In its final press release the day before it went bankrupt in 2008, the huge banking conglomerate Washington Mutual boasted about coming in sixth in Hispanic Business’s annual Diversity Elite list. “Diversity is an integral part of cultivating a welcoming, innovative and dynamic workplace here at WaMu,” said president Steve Rotella.
Although most companies claim diversity offers business advantages, some companies treat diversity as an end in itself. In 2005, Wal-Mart’s General Counsel Tom Mars told the company’s top 100 outside law firms that they would be graded not just on price and performance, but also on the diversity of their lawyers. It is possible to outrank other firms on price and performance but lose Wal-Mart’s favor because of insufficient diversity. This is because Wal-Mart values diversity even if it has no tangible benefits.
Like other large companies such as General Motors and Ford, Wal-Mart insists on diversity from its suppliers and requires reports on the number of non-whites in their workforces and among executives. It does not require reports on such things as budgeting, materials handling, or computerization. It insists on diversity — and encourages suppliers to demand diversity from their own suppliers — as a goal that is wholly independent of any business advantage.
Actual advantage may even be sacrificed in the name of diversity. The city of North Miami used to require that its police officers know how to swim because they may have to rescue someone in the water. In 2004, the department dropped that requirement because it desperately wanted Haitian officers, and most Haitian applicants could not swim. “Our swimming requirement may give the false perception that we are not serious in our efforts to hire Haitian police applicants,” explained police chief Gwendolyn Boyd-Savage, who is black. It was more important that the force appear to be committed to diversity than that officers be capable of a water rescue.
Suzanne Bump, secretary of labor and workforce development for the state of Massachusetts, explained in 2007 why she wanted diversity: “I could fill my office with white lawyers. We’re choked with applications from them. But they’re not going to get the job done. A diversity of skills, perspective and cultural background is necessary for success in creating more and better jobs in this state.” She herself is white, but did not explain what skills and perspectives whites lack that prevent them from doing the job.
Universities promote diversity with the same ardor. On April 24, 1997, 62 research universities lead by Harvard bought a full-page advertisement in the New York Times that justified racial preferences in university admissions by explaining that diversity is a “value that is central to the very concept of education in our institutions.” Lee Bollinger, who has been president of University of Michigan and of Columbia, once insisted that “diversity is not merely a desirable addition to a well-run education. It is as essential as the study of the Middle Ages, of international politics and of Shakespeare.” In 2003, Mr. Bollinger’s successor at Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman, welcomed a US Supreme Court decision permitting race-based admissions with the following statement: “Year after year, our student body proves it and now the court has affirmed it: Our diversity is our strength.”
Many companies and universities now have a “chief diversity officer” who reports directly to the president. In 2006, Michael J. Tate was vice president for equity and diversity at Washington State University. He had an annual budget of three million dollars and a full-time staff of 55. His office was on the same floor as that of the president, and he took part in the highest levels of university decision-making. There were similarly powerful “chief diversity officers” at Harvard, Berkeley, the University of Virginia, Brown, and the University of Michigan. In 2006, the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse decided that diversity was so important that its presumed beneficiaries — students — should pay for it. It increased in-state tuition by 24 percent, from $5,555 to $6,875, to cover the costs of increasing diversity.
American law schools are accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA), which uses its power to promote diversity. Schools with too many white students risk losing accreditation, which would mean students would not qualify for federal financial aid and, in many jurisdictions, could not even take the bar exam.
In 2000, an ABA reaccreditation inspection discovered that at George Mason University Law School in northern Virginia 93.5 percent of first-year students were white. The ABA recognized that GMU had made a “very active effort to recruit minorities,” but complained that the school was unwilling “to engage in any significant preferential affirmative action admissions program.” With its accreditation at stake, GMU lowered standards for non-white applicants and admitted more: 10.98 percent in 2001 and 16.16 percent in 2002. That was not enough. In 2003, the ABA summoned GMU’s president and law school dean and threatened them to their faces with disaccreditation unless the law school admitted more non-whites. GMU lowered standards even further, and managed to raise its non-white admissions to 17.3 percent in 2003, and 19 percent in 2004. This was still not good enough. “Of the 99 minority students in 2003,” the ABA complained, “only 23 were African American; of 111 minority students in 2004, the number of African Americans held at 23.”
True diversity, in other words, could not be achieved without a certain number of blacks, but what of the blacks GMU did admit? From 2003 to 2005, fully 45 percent had grade-point averages below 2.15, which is defined as “academic failure.” For non-black students, the figure was 4 percent. GMU officials pointed out that the ABA’s own Standard 501(b) says that “a law school shall not admit applicants who do not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its educational program and being admitted to the bar.” As the school’s dean, Dan Polsby, explained, this requirement was the greatest obstacle to achieving diversity targets.
American institutions pursue diversity with such enthusiasm that it would be easy to misunderstand their goals. There is a kind of diversity that is essential for any group undertaking, and one might think this is what Americans are celebrating. A contractor, for example, cannot build houses if he hires only electricians. He needs carpenters, roofers, masons, etc. If the advantage of hiring people with different skills had only recently been discovered, it would make sense to promote it enthusiastically, but that is not the kind of diversity George Bush or Lee Bollinger are talking about. They would insist that an effective workforce must have the right mix of blacks, whites, Asians, handicapped people, Hispanics, and American Indians. It is not clear how such a group would build better houses.
Let us examine what actually happens when Americans encounter diversity.
Los Angeles is often called the most diverse city in the United States — perhaps in the world. Whites have been a minority in Los Angeles County since 1990, and its inhabitants represent more than 140 nationalities and speak 130 different languages. It should be a showcase for diversity’s strengths. The schools, in particular, should be exemplary. As Hillary Clinton assured the students at her former high school, multi-racialism should be an experience of great value. Southern California also has a particular advantage in that the most salient racial mixes are not the historically freighted one of blacks and whites. Blacks and Hispanics, for example, came into contact with no past grievances — no real past at all. There is nothing like the specters of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, or segregation to poison their relations. If anything, two groups that share common experiences as minorities should find contact especially rewarding.
They do not. For decades, students in Los Angeles have stubbornly defied the expectations of those who praise diversity. Since at least 1990, calming racial tension — usually between blacks and Hispanics — has been one of the top goals of the school district. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a 1999 article:
From Crenshaw to the San Fernando Valley, administrative offices to classrooms, the often-bitter emotions of racial strife plague the Los Angeles Unified School District. District officials have worked to defuse racial and ethnic tensions with everything from squads of mediators who can travel to troubled campuses to appointments of administrators with an eye toward racial balance — a Latino vice principal, for example, to complement a black principal.
The article went on quote then-school superintendent Ruben Zacarias as saying that the school system was putting more effort into conflict resolution than any other organization in the city. It did not appear to be succeeding.
Racial violence in schools is a grinding, chronic problem that defies every effort to stamp it out. It can erupt at any time. For a great many students, conflict and tension are the most vivid consequence of the diversity that is said to be America’s strength. It would be scandalous if only a few students in America were trying to get an education in the shadow of the threat of racial violence. In fact, tension and violence touch hundreds of schools — perhaps thousands — and sear the lives of countless students.
There does not appear to be any central organization that monitors racial violence in schools, either at the state or national level, nor is it something that gets attention outside the neighborhoods in which it occurs. This makes it difficult to grasp the true dimensions of the problem or even to know whether it is getting better or worse. The only way to get a sense of the nature and scale of the problem is to describe specific incidents.
On November 20, 2004, a black-Hispanic brawl broke out at Jordan High School in South Los Angeles. Police estimated that as many as 1,000 people took part when a fight between two girls spread through the entire campus. Gang-members from adjoining neighborhoods joined the fighting, and it took about 60 policemen in riot gear to break up the fray. The school was locked down, as were two other schools in the area, for fear the violence might spread.
Just three days later, there was a fight between 100 blacks and Hispanics at Manual Arts High School, also in Los Angeles. It took dozens of officers, some in helicopters, to restore order. A week later, black students broke the jaw of a Hispanic student in front of Crenshaw High School. Police said the incidents were related: Fighting in one school can bring tensions to a head in an entire region.
The next year, there was a disturbing series of incidents at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. On April 14, more than 100 blacks and Hispanics fought each other in the cafeteria after Hispanics told blacks to “go back to Africa.” Police broke up the brawl, administrators locked down the school, and let students out early. “It’s like we’re fighting the neighbors next door just because we’re a different race,” said Michael Ortega, age 17.
The next day, the violence at Jefferson jumped directly to two other schools in the area, Norte Vista High School in Riverside, and Santa Monica High School. Norte Vista was locked down for an hour while police searched for instigators and made five arrests. The same day, blacks and Hispanics fought each other at Santa Monica High School, which was also locked down to let tensions cool. Students were dismissed methodically, building by building, to be sure they did not mix and start fighting again. “It was more racial tension than it was gang-related,” explained Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy, in what was no doubt an attempt to be reassuring.
Back at Jefferson, no fewer than 16 school and city police officers were patrolling the campus to keep tensions under control, but three days later there was another cafeteria brawl involving 100 blacks and Hispanics. The police used pepper spray to defend themselves and stop the fighting. One student suffered a broken hip and several others were arrested. Jefferson administrators announced that the school would get a metal detector for the main entrance, and close off all other entrances. They also decided to close the cafeteria so that students could not congregate. Instead of hot meals, students would get bag lunches.
The next day, just to be sure there was no more violence, 29 police officers were assigned to the school, and 12 more patrolled the neighborhood. The school was careful to put nothing in the bag lunches that could be used as a projectile — just hamburgers and burritos. Even so, attendance was down by almost half because so many students were afraid. Those who did come to school were dismissed through a phalanx of teachers, administrators, and police in riot helmets. “We just have a lot of issues with race,” conceded Principal Norm Morrow.
As tensions continued during the succeeding weeks, the president of the school’s Black Student Union said that she, like some other black students, was thinking of transferring because she was afraid of being “jumped.” The Nation of Islam offered to escort outnumbered black students to school to protect them from Hispanics. Fifteen-year-old Stephanie Alonzo, who saw a friend knocked down and kicked during one of the brawls, said she thought the solution was to keep blacks and Hispanics apart whenever they were not in class.
Hispanic students started wearing brown T-shirts as a sign of racial solidarity. “It was saying that we’re here and that we have pride in each other and we’re not going to let nobody talk stuff about us,” explained 14-year-old Daniel Rios. Blacks started wearing black T-shirts in retaliation.
During the two months that followed, there were at least two more large-scale melees despite the stepped-up police presence. There were many small skirmishes, and a number of organized attacks in which a group from one race cornered and beat a student of another race. Twenty-five students were arrested, three had to be hospitalized, and dozens were suspended or transferred. An anonymous Hispanic student wrote about the fighting in the independent publication LA Youth. He said he had decided to “stand up for my family, my Mexican ancestors, and the people who worked hard so I could be here — my heritage that I’m really proud of.” “I felt good defending my race,” he added. “I was hitting anybody I could get my hands on . . .”
Ron Rubine, a counselor at Carver Middle School in South Los Angeles, which has had considerable black-Hispanic conflict of its own, as much as conceded that racial tension was intractable. It was all very well for outsiders to call the students at Jefferson “savages,” he said, but noted that “we all have onus in this thing,” adding: “Is it really that different with adults? If there was a fight among the staff, we’d align ourselves with the people we hang around with . . . We have our public face, but look at what we do in private.” If the chips were down the staff, too, would square off along racial lines.
Jefferson High School got a new Hispanic principal from East Los Angeles, and regular visits from human relations experts, ex-convicts, former gang members, and Justice Department officials, but racial tensions continued.
Jefferson was hardly the only Los Angeles School with racial tension in 2005. That spring, a rumor went around the district that Hispanic gang members were going to celebrate the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo by killing blacks. School administrators put on extra police patrols, and principals sent home letters saying the rumors were groundless. Some schools mounted mass telephone campaigns to tell parents it was safe to send children to school. Despite these efforts, 51,000 middle and high school students — 18 percent of total enrollment — stayed home. At Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, about 1,700 of 2,800 failed to appear — an absence rate five times greater than usual. “I’m devastated that a rumor can cause such fear,” said Randy Cornfield, assistant principal at Hamilton High School.
Channa Cook, a black teacher at the highly regarded Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, explained that even there, black students routinely skipped school on Cinco de Mayo for fear of violence. As she reported: “My first year here, I didn’t believe it, but the students told me, ‘No, Miss Cook, if you come to school you’re going to get shot.’ When I arrived at class, all the black kids had stayed home.”
State funding for Los Angeles schools depends on daily attendance figures, and the thousands of absences that day were estimated to have cost the district $600,000.
The next year saw more violence. On March 21, 2006, five fights broke out between black and Hispanic students at Fremont High School in Los Angeles. Others joined in and eventually 100 students were rioting. Police locked down the school and dismissed students in small groups to keep them from mixing and fighting again. The school hired extra security officers.
In neighboring San Bernardino County, police arrested five students and 80 more were suspended after a black/Hispanic brawl at Pacific High School. The October 13 fight involved 80 to 100 students, and was the third time in three weeks that dozens of students had fought each other. There were eight campus security men present, but they were unable to break up the riot. and police finally had to use pepper balls to separate blacks and Hispanics. The riot was a replay of the previous year’s racial violence that greeted the start of the school year.
On the same day in the same county, an estimated 500 blacks and Hispanics pitched into each other with bottles, rocks, and fists at Fontana High School. It took more than 100 officers, including the Fontana SWAT team, more than an hour and a half to restore order. Helicopters circled overhead as officers fired bean-bag rounds, sting balls, and hundreds of rubber pellets. Girls were fighting alongside boys. Officers arrested six students and charged two with assault with a deadly weapon.
“It all started with blacks versus Mexicans, as always,” explained sophomore Abigail Orozco. Sixteen-year-old Samantha Dorgey said there were fights about once a week, but this one just got out of hand. Police locked down Fontana as well as nearby Citrus Elementary and Truman Middle School to keep the violence from spreading. Journalists noted that within the previous four years police had had to quell racial violence at A.B. Miller High School, Redlands High School, Bloomington High School, Wilmer Amina Carter High School, and Silverado High School, all in San Bernardino County. The Fontana school district later installed an anonymous tip line, hired an intervention specialist, and started making students wear identification badges.
Early the next year, 2007, police had to fire pepper balls to break up a black-Hispanic riot that broke out at San Bernardino High School during a pep rally. Hispanics were 70 percent of the student body, and some black students resented being outnumbered. “This racial stuff has got to stop,” said Tami Manning, as she walked out of school with her daughter, who had been suspended for fighting a Hispanic girl. Darnic Comer said that the high school had become so dangerous for blacks that he would pull out his 10th-grade son. “This is why I took him out of Pacific [High School], too,” he added.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, police arrested a 16-year-old black student for stabbing to death a 17-year-old Hispanic student at Washington Preparatory High School. Other students said it was the culmination of persistent racial tension.
In 2008 it was Locke High School’s turn when as many as 600 black and Hispanics fought each other in a campus-wide brawl. There were only two officers on duty when the fighting started, but campus security brought in 60 more officers and the Los Angeles police sent a dozen patrol cars and 50 men. It took a half hour for the officers, many in riot gear, to stop the riot and lock down the school. The South Los Angeles campus had an enrollment of 2,600 that was 65 percent Hispanic and 35 percent black. One black student explained that the races do not mix at Locke — “Everybody usually just sticks to themselves” — and that violence on such a scale was unusual.
Locke High School has a long history of racial violence. In February 1996, 50 police officers had to be called in to break up a lunch-time riot involving hundreds of blacks and Hispanics. Boys and girls beat each other, and one boy jumped out of a second-story window to escape pursuers. After order was finally restored and school dismissed, police in riot gear had to keep students from rejoining battle in the streets. Tensions were particularly high because Hispanics resented the February celebrations of black history month.
The Los Angeles area may be the worst for black-Hispanic violence in schools, but the rest of the state is not immune. The Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento has conducted repeated meetings of something called the Task Force on Expectations for Student Unity to try to stop violence. Marjorie Beazer, a black mother with three students in the district, said that race was so close to the surface “it’s like breathing, almost.”
Some people are caught up in black-Hispanic violence by mistake. “I’m actually Kuwaiti,” explained Yuseff Esmail, who says a black mistook him for a Hispanic during a brawl at Silverado High School in Victorville. “Somebody I never met decided to punch me in the eye because of my skin color.” The attack left him with 20/60 vision in his right eye and a constant fear of blacks. His father, Jacob Esmail, was angry. “I came here to the San Fernando Valley looking for safety and now I have to leave because it’s dangerous for my kids,” he said. He said he would sell his house and move away, and was thinking of suing the school for not protecting his son.
Such suits have been successful. In 2005, the parents of four black students sued Valencia High School in the Santa Clarita Valley in northern Los Angeles County, saying it had not done enough to protect their children from attack. They received a $300,000 settlement.
Black-Hispanic school violence is concentrated in California because it is the state with the largest number of Hispanics, but other states also suffer. Patterson, New Jersey, is a city of about 149,000 that was half Hispanic and one-third black in 2001. Students at John F. Kennedy High School reflected this ethnic mix, and administrators tried to curb racial violence by implementing “conflict resolution” and “peer counseling” programs. On June 20, police had to break up a fight between young blacks and Hispanics near the school. Shortly afterwards, blacks went swarming through the streets and beat to death a 42-year-old homeless Hispanic man. Police arrested eleven blacks, ages 15 through 17.
On Nov. 12, 2007, at Lakewood High School in Lakewood, New Jersey, a fight that began between rival black and Hispanic gangs spread to 150 students. Seventy-five police officers in riot gear from five towns helped put down the violence. At the height of the melee, students were throwing tables and chairs and had pinned several officers to the ground. After officers finally gained control they locked down the school for an hour as they rounded up trouble-makers. Lakewood High School was 43 percent Hispanic, 36 percent black, and 19 percent white.
In Chicago in 2005, police made seven arrests after they broke up a brawl between black and Hispanic students at Washington High School. The teachers’ union reported that many teachers felt unsafe and were pressing the district to increase security. Likewise in Chicago, in 2006, blacks and Hispanics fought at Roberto Clemente High School, where Hispanics outnumber blacks. “They don’t want us here,” explained Stephen Flagg, a black student. “We don’t want to be here,” he added. “Everybody is different, and that’s why everybody is fighting.”
In late 2008, Hempstead High School on Long Island was wracked by two days of especially severe black-Hispanic fighting. The school suspended dozens of students, canceled the homecoming pep rally, and finally stopped the violence by blanketing the school with uniformed police and undercover officers. “They be groupin’ up, and I just had to defend my people and that’s what I do,” explained one of the combatants.
No state with substantial numbers of blacks and Hispanics is safe from violence. Five detectives and ten police officers set up a command post at Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, after fighting broke out between blacks and Hispanics in October 2008. Officers followed school buses home to make sure the fighting would not continue after dismissal. A Hispanic girl who was beaten unconscious in one melee said the trouble started when a group of blacks called Hispanics “wetbacks.”
The consequences of racial tension can be heart-rending. In 1997, classes from two Chicago middle schools happened to book cruises on the same ship on the same day to celebrate eighth-grade graduation. The principal of Logandale Middle school, which is largely Hispanic, refused to let the students from Brown Elementary School, which is black, board the ship. The black children were left on the dock in tears as the Spirit of Chicago set sail. The Hispanic principal, Luis Molina, explained that the risk of violence was too great, even if the two schools were on different decks.
There is black-Hispanic tension in Texas. In 2001, Andress High School in El Paso was 55 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white, and 16 percent black. On March 1, a morning fistfight resumed at lunchtime as a full-scale riot involving 400 black and Hispanic students. Police came at 12:20 p.m., but could not control the situation. By 1:00 p.m., 100 officers were on the scene and closed a road to the school as part of their attempt to restore order. A police helicopter circled overhead as officers arrested 11 students. Terrel Tate, a 16-year-old white student who stayed out of the fighting, explained that “they [blacks and Hispanics] hate each other because of their skin.”
In 2004 in Phoenix, Arizona, three eighth-grade black girls from Maxine O. Bush Elementary School were convicted of assault for attacking a Hispanic girl. The parents of the Hispanic, who were convinced the attack was racially motivated, threatened to sue the school district for $25 million, and asked the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) for help. LULAC demanded that the principal be fired for failing to protect Hispanics, and threatened a boycott if he were not removed.
Tension did not break into violence at Palo Verde High Magnet School in Tucson, Arizona, but there was so much simmering hostility that a half-dozen police cars were assigned to the area, and Principal Tina Isaac canceled a homecoming pep rally. “We know we have a lot of work to do in mending the relationships between these kids,” she said, “and that won’t happen overnight.”
Grown-ups can be drawn into the violence. On April 1, 2005, Mary Oliver, a Hispanic-Asian teacher at Travis Academy in Dallas, Texas, had to put down a disturbance outside her classroom. She told two black girls to get back to class, and then told a white girl to do the same, though the blacks may not have heard. One black girl called her mother, Paulette Baines, who was a teacher at North Dallas High School. Miss Baines left North Dallas High, marched into Miss Oliver’s class and attacked her right in front of her seventh-grade students. She dragged her across the floor, pulling out clumps of hair, and kicked her, breaking several ribs. She was reported to be incensed at what she considered unfair treatment of blacks at Travis Academy.
Blacks in Los Angeles do not see the arrival of Hispanics as an opportunity to celebrate diversity. They see it as a threat. By 1999, there were 26 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District in which Hispanics were the majority of the students but blacks were the majority of the staff. Hispanic parents demanded more Hispanic staff but blacks would not step down. As Celes King III, president of the Congress for Racial Equality, who once lead a demonstration against a white principal at Manual Arts High School, noted with no apparent sense of irony: “The situation has gone full circle. The Hispanics are using the same thoughts and practices we used 30 years ago. . . . We need to organize and maintain our positions in education because we worked so hard for them.”
Black-Hispanic conflict in the schools has almost been institutionalized. In 2007, one advisory council to the Los Angeles Unified School District that had black and Hispanic representation fought for months over whether to hold its meetings in Spanish or English. Hispanics stormed out of one meeting when the blacks voted to censure the Hispanic chairman. In desperation, the district brought in dispute-resolution experts and mental health counselors. One wonders what service such an “advisory” council can render the district.
Hispanics seem to take proportional representation by race for granted. In 1999, Burton Elementary School in Panorama, California, was 90 percent Hispanic, and parents sharply criticized its white principal, Norman Bernstein, when he tried to phase out bilingual education in accordance with the provisions of a 1998 ballot initiative. The parents’ hostility was so pointedly ethnic that Mr. Bernstein sought advice from the Anti-Defamation League. Not long afterwards, he said, two Hispanic men waylaid him on his way to work. “We don’t want you here, white principal,” they said and then beat him unconscious. The Los Angeles school board president condemned the beating but noted that Hispanic parents often ask for Hispanic principals at their schools adding, “I don’t think this is an unreasonable request.”
Although the primary ethnic fault line in America’s schools today is between blacks and Hispanics, there can be friction whenever different groups mix, and as student populations become more diverse it opens up new opportunities for conflict. In Hamtramck, Michigan, the tensions are between blacks and Arabs. After a racially-motivated brawl in 2004, the superintendent of schools promised a constant police presence at Hamtramck High School, but police patrols were not enough. The next year, the school spent $22,000 on surveillance cameras to try to keep peace in a school that was averaging at least one fight every three days. The cameras were in addition to metal detectors and photo IDs students had worn for years. “It’s just the way things are,” said Terrell Beasley, who was hospitalized after an attack by Arabs. “Blacks and Arabs don’t get along. It’s been like that since the beginning.”
In rural Gentry, Arkansas, Hmong immigrants are a source of friction. Between November 2005 and January 2006, police arrested 14 public school students for what they called “racially motivated” fights. One student had to go to the hospital, and two Hmong and two Hispanic teenagers were expelled. The town quickly called in professional help to try to ease the tension. “We really want to make people aware of what’s going on over there before someone gets killed,” said Tessie Ajala, who led an intervention program at the high school.
In 2000, at Valley Center High School in San Diego County, California, 30 police officers put down a fight between dozens of Hispanic and American Indian students. Juan Granados, who is the founder of an organization that tries to train young people in peace-making, said that Hispanic and Indian students had been feuding for 40 years.
At Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis, there is friction between Indian students and some 200 Somali immigrant children. In May 2003, parents of Indians held a rally outside the school to protest bullying and violence by Somalis. School officials promised a program of cultural awareness and sensitivity.
At Purnell Swett High School in Lumberton, North Carolina, blacks and Lumbee Indians do not get along. Thirty Indians and nine blacks were suspended after an October 2002 fight, prompting 100 Indian students and their parents to demonstrate against what they thought was unfair treatment. Later that month the school was on edge over an anonymous letter filled with expletives about blacks that said, “I am a soldier in the Lumbee’s army. I will never surrender to the enemy.”
In Boston, there have been fights between Somalis and American blacks. At English High School a riot began when black students started snatching the Somali girls’ headscarves. “This was the most angry mob of kids I ever saw,” said Pat Mullane, a teacher. “It was very frightening.” She said the American blacks knocked Somalis to the floor and stomped them, while others linked arms around the mayhem to stop teachers from getting in to break up the fight. There were police officers on campus later that week, and all students were searched with metal detectors. “This is just the beginning,” said one Somali senior. “More will happen.”
There was similar tension at Roosevelt High School in south Minneapolis. In September 2001, a fight broke out between a Somali and a black former student, and more Somalis and blacks quickly piled on. Somalis stabbed a 14-year-old black in the chest and also stabbed an assistant coach who tried to break up the fight. Police said there was long-simmering hostility between these two groups.
At Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, American blacks and Jamaicans often fight. After a brawl that ended with one combatant stabbed in the chest, neck, and back, a 16-year-old Jamaican explained, “Most Jamaicans don’t like the black kids who are here and vice versa. They fight most of the time, but this time it got more physical than usual.”
There is trouble between Armenian and Hispanic students in Los Angeles County. In 2000, when 17-year-old Raul Aguirre came to the aid of a fellow Hispanic who was fighting two Armenians they stabbed Mr. Aguirre twice in the heart, twice in the head and beat his head in with a tire iron. Two Armenian boys, aged 17 and 15, and a 14-year-old Armenian girl were booked in connection with the killing. Hispanics took revenge a few days later. Just minutes after the conclusion of a community meeting held to promote ethnic harmony, three Hispanics in a car shot at a group of Armenians standing on a street corner. An 18-year-old Armenian went to the hospital with a bullet in his knee.
In March 2005, there was a riot involving 200 to 400 Armenian and Hispanic students at Grant High School in Los Angeles. Helicopters hovered overhead as police officers put down violence that sent four students, two teachers, and a police officer to the hospital. “The fight was very horrible,” said 15-year-old Grant freshman Mary Kirishyan. “All you saw was trash cans flying in the air and everyone running around, it was very scary.” There was so much chaos the Los Angeles police ordered a child development center across the street from the high school locked down to keep its 72 children from being injured. There had been persistent racial tension at the school, which was 68 percent Hispanic and 23 percent Armenian. According to a Hispanic student, the riot began when “the Armenians hit a 14-year-old girl in the face because she was Hispanic.”
Grant High School has had an Armenian-Hispanic problem that goes back many years. In October 1999, 20 or so Hispanics crossed the invisible line that divided the Armenian and Hispanic areas and were immediately attacked by a much larger group of Armenians. The fighting quickly escalated into a pitched battle involving 400 students. Fourteen students and two teachers were injured, and calm did not return until at least 30 Los Angeles police officers appeared, some brandishing shotguns. The school’s dean, Daniel Gruenberg, explained there have been similar ethnic battles at least once a year for more than a decade. The school has tried conflict resolution programs, cultural awareness classes, group mediation, peer counseling, and teacher training but nothing seems to work.
As we saw elsewhere so many whites have left urban public schools that those who remain are often a small minority. They usually do not push back in the escalation of affronts that lead to violence and hardly ever act in groups.
The exceptions usually involve white ethnics. At Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, 200 white students — all Albanians, many of them refugees — refuse to be intimidated. They are vastly outnumbered in a student body of 4,000 that is mostly black and Hispanic, but have stood up to mass attacks that had to be stopped by police. In December 2000, police arrested 12 students after a fight that involved dozens of Albanians fighting blacks and Hispanics. The year before, there was a major brawl when blacks spotted an Albanian wearing a black-and-red Albanian flag. Those are the colors of the Bloods.
“They all hate us,” said 17-year-old Diana Gjoljaj of the blacks and Hispanics. “That’s why we hang together.” “They’re a bunch of racists, all of them,” said John, a 19-year-old Albanian who was afraid to give his last name. “The kids think because we’re white we’re not going to fight back.” Fifteen-year-old Ylli Mujaj explained that unlike other white children, Albanians refuse to be pushed around. “We stick together,” he said. “We give as good as we get.” Evan Small, a black junior, explained that blacks stick together, too. “If you see guys fighting you are going to jump in and protect your people.”
Most of the time, racial incidents involving whites are relatively benign. In 2004, Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska had about 1,600 students — the vast majority of whom were white — and only about 50 blacks. Every year, Westside would choose one from among that handful for its “Distinguished African American Student Award.” Some of the whites decided to satirize the award by putting up more than 100 posters around the school, nominating a white student from South Africa for the award. The South African and several of his friends were suspended.
Occasionally, however, there are reports of racial violence involving non-immigrant whites. Lake Elsinore is a costal town in Riverside County, California. At Canyon High School, 18 students were suspended and eight faced expulsion after two days of fighting between whites and Hispanics. The violence reportedly began when a Hispanic girl started singing in Spanish and a white boy swore at her and told her to shut up.
Whites are almost never involved, however, in the massive riots that continue to wrack some schools, especially in Southern California. Perhaps this helps explain why the problem attracts no national attention.
Asian students, like whites, have a reputation for not fighting back, and black and Hispanic students often bully them. Aimee Baldillo of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium said that this was “something we see everywhere in different pockets of the U.S. where there’s a large influx of (Asian) people.”
Administrators may be reluctant to admit there is racial tension in their schools. It is an embarrassment to have to admit failure in an area into which the country puts so much moral effort. Mara Sapon-Shevin, a professor of inclusive education at Syracuse University, says high schools and middle schools must face the problem honestly. “The truth is that every school has a racism problem, and the only differentiation is between schools that are doing something about it and schools that aren’t.”
Those that are doing something about it have tried just about everything, including professional mediation, multicultural training, anger-management classes, and a host of other interventions. In 2004, the Murrieta Valley Unified School District, in Riverside County, California, even considered a resolution to punish students merely for “rejecting” each other. No student would have been permitted to “form or openly participate in groups that tend to exclude, or create the impression of the exclusion of, other students.” The school board narrowly voted to table the proposal when it was pointed out that the ban would have prohibited membership in the Hispanic group “La Raza,” and could even have been read to forbid playing rap music in the hearing of white students. That such an absurd measure could even be considered shows how frantic educators are to solve the race problem.
High school class rings used to be signs of school spirit and class solidarity. Now they can be symbols of ethnic pride. When Jennifer Nguyen got a ring at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, she had a dragon engraved on it as a symbol of Asia. “Even though I was born here, I’m still Vietnamese,” she explained. Vicky Rodriguez, a student at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, was also born in America but her parents came from El Salvador, so she got a ring emblazoned with her country’s flag. “I’m very proud of where I came from,” she said.
Conflicting loyalties are so close to the surface that some schools have banned all flags — even American flags. After Mexican students at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in Santa Barbara County, California, brought Mexican flags to school, whites replied with American flags. The whites said they were simply being patriotic, but Principal Norm Clevenger said the American flags suggested “intolerance” and confiscated them.
Likewise, at Skyline High School in Denver, Colorado, American flags were banned from campus when principal Tom Stumpf decided they had been waved “brazenly” in the faces of Hispanic students. He banned all other flags, too.
The entire Oceanside Unified School District in San Diego County banned flags and even flag-motif clothing. The district decided flags were too provocative after Hispanics participated in large-scale marches demanding amnesty for illegal immigrants. Officials said flags were being used to taunt other students and stir up trouble. It is difficult to think of diversity as our country’s greatest strength when it forces a school district to treat Old Glory as if it were a display of gang colors.
Racial tension is probably the biggest reason increasing numbers of American high school students skip school because they fear violence. A 2003 survey found that 5.4 percent of students had stayed home at least once during the previous month because they were physically afraid. This was an increase over 4.4 percent ten years earlier.
The racial violence that comes with diversity probably contributes to the increase in home schooling. In 2003, a government study reported there were nearly 1.1 million home-schooled Americans, an increase of 29 percent over the figure for 1999.
One little-noticed effect of increased diversity is the pressure it puts on textbooks. Beginning in the 1960s, schoolbooks were rewritten to reflect the views of blacks, women, and — increasingly — Hispanics. There are now other challenges.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, Sandhya Kumar led a successful campaign to force the school district — the twelfth largest in the country — to revise its fifth-, ninth-, and tenth-grade materials to show proper respect for Hinduism, Indians, and Indian immigrants. The district duly submitted the texts to George Washington University religion professor Balaji Hebbar for approval. Miss Kumar said she started the campaign because she wanted the school curriculum to instill a love of India in her three children.
Immigrants have brought the conflict between established Indian historians and Hindu nationalist revisionists with them. Hindu nationalists successfully pressured the California board of education to tilt textbooks their way — to the dismay of Michael Witzel, a Harvard Sanskrit scholar and India expert. In testimony about the revisions before a government commission in Sacramento, he explained that “the textbooks before were not very good, but at least they were more or less presentable. Now, it is completely incorrect.”
The Hmong have been worked into the California curriculum as well. They are a Southeast Asian hill people whom the CIA recruited to fight Laotian Communists during the 1960s and ’70s. Hmong immigrants have formed knots of unemployment, poverty, and school failure, and after a well-publicized rash of teenager suicides, the California legislature decided it should do something to boost Hmong self-esteem. A bill, sponsored by Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno) and passed in 2003, “encouraged” California schools to teach students about the role of Southeast Asians during the Vietnam War.
The bill did not mention the Hmong by name, the very thing many believed would be an important psychological boost. The reason was, alas, diversity. There are several sub-tribes of Hmong, and they fought over what to call themselves. The worst split was between the Hmong Der (white Hmong) and the Mong Leng (green or, sometimes, blue Mong) who could not agree on whether the term Hmong includes the Mong. There was such a wrangle that Rep. Reyes threw up her hands and put only “Southeast Asians” in the bill, and for a while the Mong were getting hate mail from Hmong who accused them of sabotaging the bill.
By 2008 the sub-tribes had struck a deal on what to call themselves, and were pushing a bill to require changes to the California curriculum that would give Hmong children pride in their culture. Whether it would help or not, the purpose of a history class is not to make everyone in the room feel proud. As other immigrant groups grow in numbers some will no doubt press for similar treatment.
Diversity makes it difficult to agree on school names. As the racial mix of a school changes, a name that was once popular becomes odious. The New Orleans school district, for example, which is overwhelmingly black, decided in 1992 that no school could bear the name of a slave-holder or Confederate officer. There was little surprise or opposition when schools named for Robert E. Lee and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard were renamed for black supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall and black astronaut Ronald McNair. However, George Washington Elementary, where 98 percent of 702 students were black, fell afoul of the slave-owner rule, too, and with practically no resistance from faculty, parents, or the community, it was renamed for Charles Drew, a black surgeon known for work in blood transfusions. As long-time black activist Carl Galmon explained, “to African-Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Duke.”
Berkeley, California, has seen similar changes. In 1968, James Garfield Middle School was renamed for Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, Abraham Lincoln Elementary became Malcolm X Elementary. The search for a new name can become a racial tug-of-war, however, if a school serves a diverse population. When Columbus Elementary in Berkeley had to be rebuilt after earthquake damage in 1999, it was rechristened Rosa Parks Elementary, but only after a fierce fight with a strong Hispanic contingent that insisted on honoring Cesar Chavez. At the end of 2008, the fight between blacks and Hispanics over what to name a new high school in Los Angeles — Hispanics wanted Cesar Chavez; blacks wanted the name of a black police officer killed in a shootout — was so bitter that the Associated Press headlined its story “Racial Tensions Flare Over School’s Name.”
In 2005, the teachers at Thomas Jefferson Elementary in Berkeley decided they could no longer work at a school named after a slaveholder, but again there was a fight between Hispanics who wanted Cesar Chavez and blacks who wanted Sojourner Truth. In a compromise that is likely to become more common as diversity makes it impossible to agree on a name that honors a person, the school finally proposed the neutral name of Sequoia to the school board. At what used to be Jefferson Davis Middle School in Palm Springs, Florida, it took a naming committee two years to reach a similar conclusion. Blacks and Hispanics could not agree on a hero so they replaced the Confederate president with the bland name of Palm Springs Middle School.
Chavez, however, was Mexican, and is therefore not a model for all Hispanics. There are 350,000 Salvadorans in Los Angeles County, mainly centered around MacArthur Park. In 2007 they opened Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School, named after an assassinated Salvadoran archbishop, to help Salvadoran children maintain their heritage. If the demographics of the neighborhood change, the name will no doubt have to be changed.
The racial diversity that leads to conflict in schools has the same effect in prisons. Prison race riots appear to be at least as common as school race riots — and more deadly. They can be a terrifying additional penalty to a prison term, but, like racial violence in schools, it is a problem Americans prefer to ignore. Southern California again leads the way.
Hispanics outnumber blacks in the prisons and racial tension has boiled beneath the surface for decades. It was old news in 1995 when the Orange County Register ran the headline, “Black Jail Inmates Say They Live in Fear of Being ‘Ambushed’.” Blacks in the Orange County Men’s Central Jail said they were afraid to leave their cells for fear of being attacked by more numerous Hispanics. “I don’t feel I can walk down to the infirmary without getting assaulted or without (someone saying) ‘We’re going to get you,’ ” explained one 29-year-old black inmate.
Racial tension often flared into violence, and up until they started using effective, non-lethal crowd control equipment around 2000, guards routinely put down brawls with live fire. On February 23 that year, when 200 blacks and Hispanics at Pelican Bay State Prison started slashing each other with home-made knives, guards could not control the fighting with tear gas or pepper spray. They shot 15 inmates, killing one and critically wounding another. Prisoners still managed to stab at least 32 fellow inmates.
That may have been the last California prison riot put down with sustained rifle fire. A long series of incidents at the Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles County later that year proved the effectiveness of new crowd-control techniques. The problem at Pitchess — as in many other California prisons — was that the more numerous Hispanics had a policy of attacking blacks whenever they reached a certain numerical advantage. Critics said the authorities knew this but sometimes let the numbers in a dormitory tip as far as four or eight to one against blacks.
Whatever the cause of the outbreak, in April 2000, hundreds of blacks and Hispanics fought each other for three straight days. Approximately 80 men — most of them black — were injured and a black prisoner was beaten into a coma. Hispanics stuffed him under a mattress during a search for casualties, and would have finished him off if guards had not found him just in time.
Whenever the guards thought they had stopped the fighting it would break out again, and as a last resort, guards formally segregated the prisoners. Noting that there had been more than 150 major race-related disturbances since 1991, Sheriff’s Chief Taylor Moorehead explained that “it would be foolish to do anything but segregate.”
The families of black prisoners were pleased. “I know that people say segregation is not fair, whatever, whatever, but segregation is safer for our boys,” explained Ethel Fuqua. “Can you imagine how it feels to go and visit your son and see 43 stitches ’cross his face?” asked Janice Cooper. Christopher Darden, who helped prosecute O.J. Simpson for murder, said black prisoners had to be protected at all costs, and that “if it takes segregation, then that’s exactly what the sheriff should do.”
The inmates enjoyed the respite. “It’s good to have us like this,” said a Hispanic prisoner. “We want to stay with who we know.” Blacks agreed. “I shouldn’t have to come to jail as a parolee and have to fight for my life,” said Leonard Bryant. The prisoners knew, however, that segregation was against state law and was only temporary. Asked what it would be like when the dormitories were reintegrated, a tattooed Hispanic gang member replied, “The raza’s always ready to fight.” A black was not looking forward to sharing quarters again with Hispanics: “It’s going to be very difficult for me to go to sleep with someone above me, next to me, under me who would kill me at the drop of a dime,” he said.
After several weeks of peace, the authorities reintegrated the prison, though they did develop special computer programs to track the racial balance throughout the complex to make sure Hispanics never achieved a crushing majority over blacks. Still, it did not take long for violence to resume. On July 8, 2000, blacks launched simultaneous attacks in three different dormitories to retaliate for the beating they took during the April riots that led to segregation. The next day, Hispanics in three other dormitories attacked black prisoners. Twenty-two men were hurt and two were hospitalized with deep facial cuts. Other Hispanics wrecked their own dormitory when they learned they were going to be moved from all-Hispanic housing to share quarters with blacks. Sheriff’s Chief Moorehead said that segregation would permanently eliminate racial tension but noted that the law required integration.
A month after the April riots, black inmates filed a class action suit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, claiming that it was a violation of civil rights to let the violence continue. “These riots have happened year after year,” said Leon Jenkins, the lawyer who brought the suit, “and if you don’t take corrective action it shows a deliberate indifference to the rights of these inmates.” ACLU lawyer David Fathi noted that “if the only way they can maintain control is to segregate — which is unconstitutional — then that’s a startling confession.”
The one good thing to come out of the Pitchess riots of 2000 was the discovery that with new types of “clean out gas,” pepper-filled balls, and sting-ball grenades, along with traditional hard rubber pellets fired from guns, guards could put down riots without lethal force. “I think the pilot [program] is over,” said Sheriff’s Chief Moorehead. “Let’s get more of ’em.”
New techniques did not, of course, stop the mayhem. In 2003, an estimated 150 blacks and Hispanics battled for 90 minutes at the Eagle Mountain prison about 60 miles east of Palm Springs. Two prisoners were killed, four had to be helicoptered to hospitals, and another 50 were treated by prison medical staff. Prisoners also broke windows and smashed furniture. “I walked onto the yard when it was over, and it looked like Beirut,” said Lt. Warren Montgomery, who rushed over from another prison to help put down the riot. He said prisoners attacked each other with knives and meat cleavers from the kitchen, as well as table and chair legs and mop handles — “anything they could get their hands on.” Eagle Mountain is a low-risk prison for non-violent prisoners.
In 2005, the state prison in Tehachapi had to be locked down after an estimated 480 black and Hispanic prisoners fought each other for 40 minutes. Mike Coghlan, a spokesman for the prison said racial disturbances were not uncommon at Tehachapi but that “this is a fairly large one.”
That same year, San Quentin State Prison had its worst prison riot since 1982 when Hispanics attacked whites, and 400 inmates joined in the fighting. Thirty-nine needed medical treatment and three of the most seriously wounded had to be taken to a hospital outside the prison. The fighting took place in part of the prison that had already been locked down for a week because of fighting between Hispanics and whites. Likewise in 2005, five inmates at the state prison at Chino, California, had to be hospitalized after some 200 black and Hispanic prisoners battled each other.
That same year, one white prisoner paid with his life for violating racial etiquette. At the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail there was a strict mealtime rule that reflected the racial balance of power: Hispanics ate first, followed by blacks, and whites last. A white decided not to wait for his dinner and got in line with 30 Hispanics. As soon as the guards were not looking, the Hispanics beat him to death. “Race is the predominate issue in everything going on in these jail modules,” explained Michael Gennaco, head of the county Office of Independent Review. There was to be an investigation into why guards left the men alone to eat their meal.
On February 4, 2006, 2,000 inmates went on a four-hour rampage at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, California. The riot began when Hispanics started throwing furniture from an upper level dormitory onto blacks in a day room below, but soon became “massive chaos,” according to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. It took 200 deputies to stop the fighting that sent 20 inmates to the hospital with serious injuries and resulted in one black prisoner being beaten to death. Sheriff Baca locked down the 21,000-man system and segregated prisoners even though it was against the rules. “Human life is more important than appearance,” he explained. The Sheriff added that racial violence “is impossible to prevent,” and released a letter from a Hispanic inmate that said: “If blacks come into the dorms we will fight . . . Please separate us race by race for everyone’s safety.” The initial assault on the blacks appeared to be retaliation for a stabbing attack two days earlier on a Hispanic inmate at the Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail.
According to official records, the riot was the seventh major incident in the county jail system in just two months. In the previous year, there had been 33 major inmate disturbances, including 19 at the North County jail, a state-of-the art facility that went into service in 1990.
The February 4, 2006 riot triggered racial violence that went on for nearly a month and spread throughout the Los Angeles County jail system. Six straight days of black-Hispanic riots in the Pitchess Detention Center left one black inmate dead and dozens injured. The Sheriff’s office admitted it was overwhelmed by constant warfare that had required hospitalization for 28 prisoners. Ironically, the last day of rioting — put down with rubber bullets — came just after a group of black clergymen visited the prison to meet with blacks who complained of being attacked by Hispanics. “Black inmates are begging us for help. They want to stay segregated and be protected,” said Najee Ali, of Project Islamic Hope.
On February 13 another black prisoner was killed, this time at the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff Baca locked down the entire county system and segregated as many dormitories as he thought he could without provoking a civil rights challenge. Meanwhile, the violence spread to juvenile lockups, with three black-Hispanic riots at youth detention centers, including Camp McNair in Lancaster.
That fall, whites battled Hispanics in a riot at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility about 25 miles southeast of San Diego. Guards broke up the brawl with tear gas, pepper spray, and wooden batons and locked down five housing units. Five inmates were hospitalized with stab wounds.
When California firefighting crews are overwhelmed, they occasionally get help from prisoners, but they are not always much use. In December 2007, white and Hispanic prisoners who were supposed to be fighting the Poomacha fire in San Diego County ended up fighting each other and had to be pulled off the job, just when they were needed most. The fire burned 50,000 acres and 217 homes and other buildings.
For ten years, Asians were kept in segregated dormitories in Los Angeles County jails. The Mexican mafia had put a “green light” on them, meaning that Hispanics were to attack them on sight. They were only about 3.5 percent of the prison population, so it was relatively easy to house them separately. In early 2004, when the “green light” went off, prison authorities decided to return Asians to the general population. “It’s like feeding us to the sharks,” said Raymond Lim, who was serving time for attempted murder. “You can see the tension around here, and when it hits us, it’s going to hit us hard.” Some Asians barricaded their cell doors with beds and set fire to mattresses to protest the decision.
Nearly two dozen family members of Asian prisoners met with Sheriff Lee Baca to urge him to keep the “Asian-only module” at the downtown Los Angeles jail. Rosie Tse, whose husband was in jail awaiting trial, said after the meeting that she was disappointed Sheriff Baca thought ending segregation was more important than safety.
It didn’t take long for the “green light” to go back on for Asians, reportedly in retaliation for Asian attacks in March on a Hispanic gang in Garden Grove in neighboring Orange County. Inmates at two Orange County jails were put on several weeks of lockdown to keep Asians and Hispanics apart. They were banned from all recreational and educational activities and not allowed into public areas. They went to the mess in racially segregated, staggered shifts to get one hot meal a day — as required by law — and got two cold bag lunches delivered to their rooms. Privileges were to be restored gradually if there was no violence. Strict racial segregation of Asians was not restored.
California is not the only state with prison riots. In the summer of 1999, several dozen Hispanics in the Dominguez prison near San Antonio, Texas, used everything from steel-toed boots to trash cans to attack a smaller number of black prisoners, whom they had managed to ambush during a lockdown. As a 19-year-old Hispanic participant explained, “everybody was just swinging . . . All that time, all I could think of was hurting (the blacks) best I could.” The prisoners wanted segregation but the authorities would not allow it. “They’re going to have to learn to live together,” said guard captain Don Dalton.
In April 2000 a fight started at the Smith Unit in Lamesa, Texas, when a Hispanic inmate told a black to stop fondling himself in front of a female guard. This turned into a riot involving 300 prisoners, in which inmates hacked at each other with garden tools. One prisoner was killed, several critically injured, and a kitchen went up in flames before 300 guards managed to stop the riot. Outnumbered whites stayed out of the fighting.
In Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution a 2000 race riot put two guards in the hospital and did not stop until a guard fired a warning shot. The fighting began when a black sat down in an area reserved for Hispanics.
Arizona also has prisons with serious black-Hispanic tensions. In October, 1999, more than 280 inmates were involved in a two-hour race riot at Fort Grant state prison that could not be contained without the help of tactical support units from three other prisons. Hispanics attacked black prisoners, who took shelter in a security building from which prison guards had fled. Hispanics then burned down the 3,000-square-foot building, though guards were able to rescue the blacks before any were killed. Eighty inmates were treated for injuries and the guards put the prison on indefinite lockdown.
At High Desert State Prison in Nevada, blacks crushed the skull of a Hispanic prisoner with a rock during a 20 minute race riot in 2004. Prisoner advocate Mercedes Maharis blamed the guards. They “let the wrong people out in the yard together,” she said.
In 2007 at the Prince George’s County Detention Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, blacks heavily outnumbered Hispanics, who were only 10 to 12 percent of the prison population. However, Hispanics were well organized and refused to be intimidated. Tensions were so high that guards resorted to segregation. “There’s too much conflict and fighting,” a supervisor said. He added that the prison was abiding by “jailhouse law:” housing inmates only with people of the same race. “It’s nothing written, but you try to keep the calm,” he said. The jail also made sure blacks and Hispanics were let onto the recreation field at different times of the day.
One of the best-known prison riots in American history was the 1993 riot in Lucasville, Ohio, between blacks and whites that lasted eleven days and caused ten deaths. One of the chief demands of the rioters was that the prison be segregated.
Inmates would overwhelmingly welcome segregation. As Lexy Good, a white prisoner in San Quentin State Prison explained, “We segregate amongst ourselves because I’d rather hang out with white people, and blacks would rather hang out with people of their own race.” He said this was no different from life outside of prison: “Look at suburbia. Look at Oakland. Look at Beverly Hills. People in society self-segregate.”
Another white man, using the pen name John Doe, wrote that jail time in Texas had turned him against blacks.
[B]ecause of my prison experiences, I cannot stand being in the presence of blacks. I can’t even listen to my old, favorite Motown music anymore. The barbarous and/or retarded blacks in prison have ruined it for me. The black prison guards who comprise half the staff and who flaunt the dominance of African-American culture in prison and give favored treatment to their ‘brothers’ have ruined it for me.
He went on:
[I]n the aftermath of the Byrd murder [the 1998 dragging death in Jasper, Texas] I read one commentator’s opinion in which he expressed disappointment that ex-cons could come out of prison with unresolved racial problems ‘despite the racial integration of the prisons.’ Despite? Buddy, do I have news for you! How about because of racial integration? (emphasis in the original)
A man who served four years in a California prison wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times called “Why Prisons Can’t Integrate.” “California prisons separate blacks, whites, Latinos and ‘others’ because the truth is that mixing races and ethnic groups in cells would be extremely dangerous for inmates,” he wrote. He offered Rule No. 1 for survival: “The various races and ethnic groups stick together,” adding that there were no other rules. He wrote that every new inmate confronts “a dining area filled with cliques, all potentially unfriendly, where any move could break some taboo or cause offense, like a nightmare version of a high school cafeteria. Because so many of the taboos involve race, only a person of the same race can be an effective guide.”
In 2001, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit bowed to reality when it ruled that prison guards may sometimes have a duty to segregate prisoners. A black plaintiff claimed guards had let blacks and Mexicans mix in an exercise yard even though they knew there was so much racial hostility it could lead to attacks. Judge Harry Pregerson agreed, saying prison officials must take reasonable measures to protect inmates from violence, and that segregation is a reasonable measure when racial tensions are high. This ruling became law in California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, and Oregon — but not for long.
In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation of prisoners was unconstitutional. Until that time, the entire California system had a rule of putting new arrivals in double cells with someone of their own race while they were initially evaluated. Really dangerous men were then sent to single cells, and others were put into the general population. The ruling meant that even this initial, temporary segregation had to be stopped.
“They should be thinking about what kind of war they are going to start,” said a 36-year-old San Quentin inmate. “It is like putting a cat and a dog in a cell together.” Lt. Rudy Luna, assistant to the warden at San Quentin said, “I think we will have a spike in fighting because we have races that don’t get along. If it was up to us, we’d keep it the way it is.”
Prison segregation would be a blessing to inmates and guards. It would save lives, relieve tension, and probably, as prisoner John Doe suggests, improve race relations on the outside by sparing convicts harrowing experiences that permanently embitter them. However, because the United States is committed to the ideal of integration the wishes of the people who suffer most from it will not be granted.
Some would say that racial violence in prisons says nothing about diversity as a national goal because the prejudices of the dregs of society have no relevance for the rest of us. We should not be so hasty to condemn people who face challenges we can hardly imagine. Prisoners must suffer the company of strangers in acutely invasive ways. To then force them into racial integration that is vastly more intense than anything most of us would choose voluntarily borders on cruelty. Federal judges should think very carefully about putting men’s lives at risk in the name of principles they, themselves, may not practice in their own lives.
Only a few people see the connection between what is happening in the prisons to what is happening outside them. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black Los Angeles radio talk show host, says that “the jail violence is only symptomatic of something larger. There is conflict and competition in all areas. This city and this state is a cauldron of racial issues. This thing is pulsating.” The advanced, non-lethal crowd-control techniques developed for prisons are now used to break up riots in schools.
Prison inmates cannot get away from each other, and this makes racial conflict worse. However, some of the bitterness that characterizes inmate race relations is now spreading into multi-racial neighborhoods. Again, its exceptionally mixed population makes Los Angeles the leading example of just how dangerous diversity can be. What can be described only as a low-level race war reached a crescendo in 2008.
As early as 2000, the Harbor Gateway/San Pedro area became a flash point as blacks moved into what had been a largely Hispanic area. That June, black and Hispanic gangs traded gunfire in San Pedro, leaving one black man brain dead and another shot in the abdomen. The next day in Harbor Gateway, Federico Estrada and a number of friends walked up to a young black man, Danny Dwayne Warren, and shot him to death. Homicide Detective Sam Snyder described the motive as pure racial retaliation.
By 2004, an unincorporated area just north of Watts between Florence and Firestone Avenues had become the scene of what the Los Angeles Times called a “deadly racial gang war.” From just January 2004 through June of 2005, a black gang, the Eastside Crips, battled a Hispanic gang called Florencia 13, producing combined casualties of 44 killed and 200 wounded in an area of just 3½ square miles. The authorities were shocked to find that only about half the victims were gang members. “Violence took a certain turn and became racial war,” explained Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca. “People were killed only because they were black or they were brown.” The department put together a 57-man task force to saturate the area.
By the next year, federal officials had enough evidence to prosecute four Hispanics for trying to cleanse blacks from the Highland Park area (about 15 miles away from Florence/Firestone) in a series of attacks carried out between 1995 and 2001. During the trial, one witness testified that an order had come from the Mexican Mafia prison gang to “kill any blacks . . . on sight.” Others stated that they had targeted men, women, and children, and that cliques within the Hispanic gang known as “the Avenues” vied with each other to see which could drive the most blacks out of Highland Park. In 2006, four Hispanics were convicted, and three were sentenced to life in prison. “These defendants will now spend the rest of their lives in federal prison for the despicable act of trying to rid their neighborhood of African Americans,” said acting US Attorney George S. Cardona.
Later in 2006, violence returned to Harbor Gateway. After blacks moved in during the 1990s, an informal boundary line was established at 206th Street: Hispanics to the north; blacks to the south. There had been inflammatory graffiti and racially-motivated killings on both sides of the line, but the death of 14-year-old Cheryl Green seemed especially odious. The middle-school student was on the black side of the line talking to friends when a Hispanic walked up to the group and started firing. He hit several other blacks, but managed to kill only Miss Green. The Los Angeles police announced a special peace-keeping effort in Harbor Gateway, but Sheriff Lee Baca warned that the almost random nature of the killings made them hard to prevent. Florencia 13 leaders continued to give orders to kill black rivals but that if a particular black could not be found, then it was, “Well, shoot any black you see.”
“They just see a young man of the opposite race and they shoot,” said Olivia Rosales, a former hate-crimes specialist who prosecuted many Florencia 13 murders from 2005 to 2007. Of the 20 cases she had handled, said Miss Rosales, “most of the victims have not been members of the rival gang.”
Timothy Slack, who is black, grew up in the contested Florence/Firestone area, when it was mostly black. “They were timid,” he said of Hispanics, “but as their numbers started getting bigger, then they started trying to be tougher. They started thinking they could demand stuff.” He said he no longer let his children go to the store or walk through alleys.
The tension was affecting everyone. Irv Sitkoff, a local pharmacist, said his employees had to treat people of different races exactly the same because the slightest difference could lead to charges of favoritism. “You’ve got to very careful,” he said. “Before, we didn’t think about it.”
One former black gang member who still lived in Florence/Firestone because he owned property and had family ties there said he expected all blacks would move out: “It’s going to come a time when everybody’s going to have to leave.”
By 2007, blacks were publicly protesting what they claimed was insufficient police protection. In November, a noisy group of activists showed up at City Hall to rail against Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and members of the City Council. “You have one race of people exterminating another race of people,” said a black woman, who demanded that the city do something to stop it.
Canoga Park is another Los Angeles neighborhood that was the scene of sustained racial violence, as Hispanics shot blacks on 12 different occasions, from the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2007. “I feel we have an obligation to let [black people] know that they could be targeted,” said Lieutenant Tom Smart of the Los Angeles Police Department. “I’d like to remind them to be mindful. It’s random.” Ironically, two years earlier, Canoga Park had received the prestigious All-America City designation, largely because of its diverse population, which was 50 percent Hispanic, 28 percent white, 15 percent Asian, and 4 percent black.
In early 2008, race killing moved to the town of Monrovia in Los Angeles County, when two blacks entered the territory of a rival Hispanic gang and killed one teenaged Hispanic girl and wounded another. Police said there had been many shootouts in what they called a “racially charged gang war” in Monrovia and in neighboring cities.
Finally, in June 2008, Sheriff Lee Baca went public with an article in the Los Angeles Times called “In L.A., Race Kills.” He wrote:
“So let me be very clear about one thing: We have a serious interracial violence problem in this county involving blacks and Latinos. Some people deny it. They say that race is not a factor in L.A.’s gang crisis. . . . But they’re wrong. The truth is that, in many cases, race is at the heart of the problem. Latino gang members shoot blacks not because they’re members of a rival gang but because of their skin color. Likewise, black gang members shoot Latinos because they are brown. . . .
“I would even take this a step further and suggest that some of L.A.’s so-called gangs are really no more than loose-knit bands of blacks or Latinos roaming the streets looking for people of the other color to shoot.”
Later that year, even the mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, had to concede that the city must “face up to” enduring racial conflict and violence between Hispanics and blacks.
Not surprisingly, the county report on hate crimes published that year and covering 2007 found a 28 percent rise over the previous year to a total of 763 incidents. Hispanic-on-black was the largest hate-crime category, followed by black-on-Hispanic. The authors of the report noted that many hate crimes undoubtedly go unreported. During the first half of 2007, Pasadena police investigated 69 cases in which blacks robbed and beat low-wage immigrants. Police Chief Christopher Vincino thought race was at least a partial motive in those cases but said it was “impossible to meet the legal criteria required for official classification.
The killings continued into 2009. In January, three Hispanic gang members were charged with racially motivated murder for shooting a black bowling alley attendant in Canoga Park as he was taking out the garbage. LAPD detective David Peteque explained that the men shot James Shamp “for no reason at all other than the color of his skin.”
Southern California no doubt has the worst black-Hispanic violence because of its demographic mix, but other parts of the country also suffer. In November 2001, a Nevada jury sentenced Damon Campbell to life in prison for killing Carlos Villanueva. Witnesses said the black man shot Mr. Villanueva in an alley east of downtown Las Vegas after saying he did not want any more Hispanics in his neighborhood.
In the San Francisco Bay-area town of Richmond, Hispanics often complain of mistreatment by blacks. In 2006, Philip Herrera was watching a movie at a theater with his mother and girlfriend. Blacks sat in the back and Hispanics in the front. During a scene of interracial dating, blacks started shouting and throwing candy at the Hispanics. When Mr. Herrera stood up to ask the blacks to stop, several men dragged him from his seat and beat him badly enough to give him a concussion. Dozens of other blacks kicked him as he crawled up the aisle to the exit. Outside the theater, blacks attacked at least two other Hispanics while black theater employees looked on and laughed.
Mr. Herrera and his mother said that when black police officers arrived, they refused to enter the theater to look for suspects, refused to take a written report, refused to escort Mr. Herrera’s mother into the theater to look for shoes she had lost, and refused to escort them to their car. Mr. Herrera’s aunt, Aleta Martinez, said there had been black-Hispanic tension for years. “I was born and raised in Richmond, and I’ve lived with harassment and racial discrimination my entire life,” she said. “It’s gotten worse and worse there.”
The city of Coatesville in eastern Pennsylvania is one of many places that have only recently begun to attract large numbers of Hispanic immigrants. In 2008, Police Chief William Matthews warned that the city’s blacks were targeting Hispanics for rape, robbery, and assault, and warned that “black-on-brown crime” could provoke the formation of violent Hispanic gangs for self-defense.
Increased black-Hispanic contact often brings tension even when it does not degenerate into violence. Many blacks see Hispanics as competitors for jobs and political influence, and resent it when Hispanics increase in numbers and, in some areas, become the dominant population. When black talk-show host Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote a series of articles favorable to Hispanic immigration he was deluged with letters of outrage. “I have never received so much hate mail from blacks,” he said. “It touched a nerve among black folks, a raw nerve.”
In 2006, the Pew Hispanic Center found that the closer blacks lived to Hispanics and the more contact they had with them, the more they favored cutting immigration. Hispanics likewise had a low opinion of blacks. In a study of various racial groups’ attitudes in Durham, North Carolina, 59 percent of Latino immigrants said that few or no blacks were hardworking, and 57 percent said that few or no blacks could be trusted. By contrast, only 9 percent of whites said that blacks were not hardworking and only 10 percent said they could not be trusted.
Hispanics show their distaste for blacks by short-changing them on tips. According to one study, Hispanic passengers tipped white taxi drivers 150 percent more than they tipped black drivers.
We have already seen in Part I how black students, teachers, and parents resist Hispanic influence in schools; the same drama plays itself out in politics. The city of Lynwood in Los Angeles County used to be black-dominated, but by 2007 it was more than 80 percent Hispanic. Blacks still had considerable power, however, because 40 percent of residents were foreign-born and many could not vote. On the city council, disputes broke down along racial lines. “It’s all about race,” said City Councilwoman Leticia Vasquez.
Sometimes black-Hispanic wrangling is so bad white mediation seems to be the only solution. The two groups were at such loggerheads on the board of the Roosevelt School District in Phoenix, Arizona, that appointing a white man to fill a vacancy seemed to be the only solution. William Weiss said he hoped to bring “calm” to the warring school board.
As Hispanics move east, tensions move with them. Hispanics have congregated in the Mount Pleasant section of Washington, DC, but do not mix with blacks. As one reporter wrote, “A black person dating a Latino in Mount Pleasant and the communities around it is almost unheard of, even though Latinos and African Americans often live close enough to hear each other’s voices through thin apartment walls.” The same reporter quoted Omar Zavala, a Salvadoran activist who had tried to get the communities together, but sounded ready to give up. “There’s minimal contact,” he said. “The dialogue is nonexistent.”
Another black wrote about his decision to take his son out of a Washington, DC, primary school where half the students and most of the staff were Hispanic. He said black students came home crying because Hispanics teased them about their skin color and hair, and that the school seemed to make little effort to hire or keep black staff. “Diversity can be messier than most of us want to acknowledge,” he wrote. His conclusion? “[T]o all the friends — most but not all of them white — whom I’ve chastised over the years for abandoning the District once their children reached school age: I’m sorry. You were right. I was wrong.”
The South, where racial conflict traditionally pitted blacks against whites, has found a new fault line. When Hispanics in Georgia sought designation as “minority suppliers” so they could get preferential contracts with the state, it was black legislators who banded together to stop them. As Bob Holmes of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus explained, “There is growing competition between blacks and Hispanics, and in the South, it is going to get worse.”
The booming economy of the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina drew many Hispanics in the 1990s, but soon there was tension with blacks. Ana Cabello-Bumpass, who handled rentals for Lee Ray Bergman Real Estate Rentals, said that when Hispanics looked at apartments, “the first thing they ask me is if there are a lot of blacks around, because they do not want to live in a place where there are a lot of African-Americans.” She added that blacks also wanted to avoid Hispanics. “I get the same thing from both sides,” she said.
Once Hispanics arrived in large numbers in an apartment complex, blacks moved out. Thomas Everette, a black man who was still living in Durham’s Parkview complex said that just two years previously it had been nearly all black. “Now it looks like little Mexico,” he said. Mexicans complained that blacks break windows and steal car stereos. “We have nothing in common,” said one. Aura Ventura said that when she and her family moved into an apartment in a black area, neighbors threw eggs at the building.
Jim Johnson, who used to live and teach in Los Angeles, was a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill specializing in inter-ethnic minority conflicts. He said the situation was like South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s.
There is conflict between Hispanics and whites. In 2007, two brothers, Nathan and Sam Corle, were sitting with a friend outside a fast-food restaurant in Grand Junction, Colorado, having a late-night snack when a group of Hispanic men pulled up and got out of a car. According to Nathan Corle, age 16, the Hispanics called them “white boys” and asked if they wanted to fight. He said he laughed because he thought it was a joke, but the Hispanics attacked. During the fight, which left the three whites with black eyes, bruises, and bloody noses, the Hispanics shouted such things as, “We’re going to teach white boys a lesson. White boys are going to die.”
The sad truth is that conflict can break out when virtually any ethnic group contacts another. In South Boston in 2004, hostility between white and Southeast Asian teenagers built up over a period of weeks and climaxed in what was to be a one-on-one fist fight between single combatants from each group. The fight degenerated into a brawl, leaving 16-year-old Bang Mai fatally stabbed.
In 2002 in Brooklyn, New York, a group of young Dominicans ventured into a Bangladeshi neighborhood looking for a bicycle to steal, but a group of Bangladeshis ran them out. The Dominicans returned with reinforcements and began attacking anyone who looked Bangladeshi. Thirty-seven-year-old Mizinor Rahman saw the attacks and dialed 911 from his cell phone. A Dominican screamed, “Who are you calling? The police?” The Dominicans then beat the Bangladeshi immigrant to death.
Hispanics and Vietnamese have been living side by side in Orange County, California, for 20 years but the result has been constant, low-level violence rather than friendship. The subtitle of a 2003 news story about the tension was “How Can the County Stop Vietnamese and Latinos From Duking It Out?” As a 25-year-old Hispanic who grew up with Vietnamese in Orange County explained, “Lots of Vietnamese and Latino immigrants just resent being next to each other.”
There is violence between American blacks and Somali Bantus in Columbus, Ohio. A 1998 brawl in one apartment complex prompted the managers to give tenants cultural sensitivity classes. That didn’t work. In 2004, there was another fight between Somalis and blacks at the complex that involved 60 people smashing each other with bats and bricks and ransacking apartments. Five Bantus went to the hospital. This time, the solution was segregation; all 15 Somali families moved to a different complex.
That same year, a fight at Mifflin High School in Columbus between blacks and Somalis left a 16-year-old Somali boy unconscious. Three Somali girls transferred to a different school because they could not get along with American blacks. “It [violence] happens more than we like to think,” said Hassan Omar, president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio. “And it will only get more complicated as the community becomes more ethnically diverse.”
Blacks have had well-publicized friction with Asians, especially with Korean grocers who set up small markets in black neighborhoods. In the 1980s, blacks picketed, burned out, or even murdered Korean grocers in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago. There were many campaigns to urge blacks not to buy from “people who don’t look like us.”
In New York City, there was so much black-Korean hostility that from 1981 to 1995, blacks launched 15 separate boycotts of Korean-owned groceries. Six lasted for at least a month. One went on for no less than 17 months and ended only when the Korean owner sold his store. Sociologist Pyong Gap Min, who has studied these events, notes that black-Korean conflict has finally subsided. Why? Because new zoning laws have led to the establishment of big-box stores that crowd out small grocers, gentrification has brought many non-blacks to Harlem and Brooklyn, and because the second generation of Korean immigrants have gone on to white-collar careers — not because blacks and Koreans learned to live together.
After the 1992 verdicts in the first trial of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King, black rioters singled out Korean-owned stores for arson. After the riots, the Los Angeles Black-Korean Alliance, created in 1986 to reduce tensions, fell apart in mutual recrimination and accusations. Outreach efforts had accomplished so little no one had the will to keep them going.
Many Korean businesses that were burned down never rebuilt. The number of Korean shops dropped to perhaps one half the pre-riot figure, more continued to leave, and this finally brought peace. “The black-Korean controversy has dissipated because the fuel has been removed,” explained Ronald Wakabayashi, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations.
Chinese have been in conflict with blacks, too. An immigrant from China who grew up in Oakland, California, wrote that black grade-school classmates didn’t bother to learn her name and instead called her Ching Chong, Chinagirl, or Chow Mein. In high school, “I was the target of sexual remarks vulgar enough to make Howard Stern blush. When I did respond to the insults, I immediately faced physical threats or attacks, along with the embarrassing fact that the other ‘Chinamen’ around me simply continued their quiet personal conversations without intervening.” The Asians, she wrote, were too small to fight back. She added that Asian children started out with no prejudices against blacks but came to hate them.
Sometimes conflict overseas can spark violence when the same groups live near each other in America. In 2000, after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon angered Palestinians by visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, there was a series of attacks against New York City Jews, and in some cases assailants waved Palestinian flags. Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered increased patrols of synagogues and Jewish schools.
As we saw earlier, American corporations are among the most enthusiastic boosters of diversity, but what are its effects on the workplace? The number of job discrimination suits filed every year suggests an answer. In fiscal year 2007, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 30,510 formal complaints of racial discrimination, 9,369 cases of national origins discrimination, and 2,880 cases of religious discrimination, for a total of 42,759 cases of job discrimination — 170 every work day — that arose because of diversity. All three categories were up at least 12 percent over the previous year, and it is safe to assume that for every case filed with the EEOC, there are many cases of perceived discrimination that are not formally pursued.
Immigrants are bringing a new kind of discrimination: “colorism,” or complaints based on skin-tone differences among people of the same race. In 2004, Vice-Chair Naomi Earp of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted that such cases ran to more than 1,500 in fiscal 2003. Although blacks of different skin tones have long discriminated against each other, Miss Earp reported that the greatest increase in disputes had been among immigrants from India, Pakistan, and South America, who are extremely color-conscious. She warned that as the country became more diverse the problem of “colorism” would get worse.
An EEOC filing is just one way to register a complaint. Many states, counties, municipalities, corporations, and universities have their own grievance procedures. Employees can also file directly in federal court; in 2001, black employees alone filed 21,000 racial discrimination cases. All branches of the armed services, which account for a total of about three million active and reserve personnel, have grievance procedures. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and the state and local equivalents of these offices all exist because of conflicts that arise from diversity. The December 2007 AR cover story presents findings that show workplace diversity generally lowers productivity.
If it were possible to count every case filed in every possible venue, it could well come to hundreds of thousands of diversity-related grievances every year. There are probably tens of thousands of Americans enforcing, adjusting, promoting, and regulating racial diversity. In addition to the emotional trauma for both accusers and accused, the costs of diversity management and the grievance mechanisms it requires probably run into the billions. This is entirely aside from the further billions spent to settle discrimination suits.
Tom McClintock, a former candidate for controller of California, estimated that before a 1996 state ballot initiative was approved to abolish the state’s affirmative action programs, the annual cost just to administer them was from $343 million to $677 million. This figure did not include the cost of private preference programs or the cost of state and local anti-discrimination machinery.
Because there are so many suits with potentially high damages, specialized insurers have arisen to offer protection. “Sooner or later, virtually every medium- to large-sized company is likely to find itself the defendant in a discrimination or sexual harassment lawsuit,” said Robert P. Hartwig, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. “It is estimated that six out of 10 companies have been named in a discrimination or sexual harassment lawsuit in the past five years,” he added. Why? “The 21st century’s racially and ethnically diverse workforce is a potential powder keg.” In 1990, there were just a handful of companies that sold insurance of this kind. By 2000, there were more than 60.
Such lawsuits have typically been black grievances against white employers, but now accusations can go in any direction. As the Wall Street Journal noted in 2006, “A new wave of race-discrimination cases is appearing in the workplace: African-Americans who feel that they are being passed over for Hispanics.” As Anna Park, an EEOC regional attorney explained, “There used to be a reluctance to bring cases against other minorities. It’s no longer a white-black paradigm. This is a new trend.”
Discrimination runs the other way, too. In October 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin voiced a common complaint among blacks when he asked: “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?” This attitude can backfire. In 2007, a federal civil jury awarded a $254,000 verdict to a Hispanic lieutenant in the Inkster, Michigan, police department because he was repeatedly denied promotion for racial reasons. Thomas Diaz convinced the jury that Inkster “promulgated and continued a policy of discriminating in employment against non-African-Americans.”
In 2008, a Los Angeles jury found that black supervisors in the Sheriff’s Department had discriminated against a 19-year Hispanic veteran, Angel Jaimes. They called a group of Latino deputies the “Mexican Mafia,” complained that Mr. Jaimes’ substation “was run by Mexicans and they were going to change that,” and acted out of racism when they took disciplinary measures. The county paid Mr. Jaimes $432,000.
In the new age of diversity, even white plaintiffs have begun to win discrimination cases. In 2008, the city of San Francisco agreed to pay $1.6 million to 12 police officers who had sued in federal court, claiming they had been passed over for promotion because the city wanted black supervisors. Milwaukee was ordered to pay 17 white police officers $2.2 million for the same reason. A federal jury found that the city’s first black police chief, Arthur Jones, had discriminated against them a total of 144 times by promoting less qualified blacks and women. Mr. Jones said he believed the verdict set back the clock and “had a devastating effect on race relations within the department and within this city.”
In 2009, after more than 20 years of legal wrangling, 75 white Chicago firefighters shared a $6 million discrimination award. They had scored higher than blacks on a 1986 lieutenants’ exam but the city cooked the scores and promoted blacks. A jury found that the test had been fair, but the city unsuccessfully fought the decision all the way to the US Supreme Court.
In Atlanta, eight white librarians won nearly $25 million from the Atlanta-Fulton County Library System after a jury decided they had been given undesirable assignments because, according to one black library official, there were “too many white managers” in the downtown branch. This was the fourth time the county had been found guilty of discriminating against whites, and two-thirds of the monetary award was punitive damages, meaning the jury thought the county had acted willfully and maliciously against the defendants.
In 2007, an appeals court upheld a lower court that had found a black New Orleans prosecutor guilty of discriminating against 42 whites and one Hispanic when he fired them and replaced them all with blacks when he took office in 2003. A three-judge panel of the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals set damages against Eddie Jordan at $3.5 million.
In 2007 a white man named Mark Pasternak who worked for New York State as a social worker won $150,000 when jurors found that his black boss, Tommy Baines, had created a hostile workforce by calling him names such as “cracker,” “Pollack,” and “stupid white boy.” Mr. Baines reportedly told him, “You’re a white boy, and I don’t like white boys. Handle it.”
Complaints may be found where they are least expected. In Canada, it is the job of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to fight prejudice, discrimination, and insensitivity, but its highly diverse employees suffer from these scourges themselves. An internal report found deep dissatisfaction among the commission’s 230 employees, who complained of spiteful managers, sexual discrimination, and a “poisoned work environment.” Forty percent of the staff had quit in the previous 12 months, and 37 percent of those who were left were hoping to quit soon.
In the United States, government bureaus that provide social services are often extremely diverse, but they are not free of tension either. Denver’s Human Services Department, which handles child abuse, welfare, child support, etc., is one of the most integrated agencies in the city. In 2001, many of its 1,300 employees and eight of ten department heads were non-white, as were many of its clients. The city hired the Gallup organization to see how employee diversity was working, and was shocked by the findings. Fifty-seven percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that employees were treated fairly without regard to race, sex, age, etc. Sixty-nine percent said they did not trust top management.
The Gallup organization, which had done similar work before, assured the city that people in the helping professions are particularly sensitive to discrimination and vocal about it. Social worker Shanna Ritts, a union representative, said she heard many complaints about minorities discriminating against each other and even about different groups of Hispanics that could not get along. “We have a large group of minority people working, but they clash,” she explained.
Workplace diversity can be dangerous. On August 26, 1997, white and black air traffic controllers in the control tower at La Guardia Airport got into a fistfight when the white used the word “boy” in the hearing of the black controller. The black took the word to be an insult. The tower was out of contact with planes for about a minute, a hazardous situation that is strictly forbidden by federal regulations.
The armed forces are often said to be a model of good race relations, but this may not always be so. Although the study is now more than a decade old, in 1997 the military carried out a huge, congressionally-mandated race relations survey that covered more than 40,000 soldiers. Many reported that race relations were “not at all” good or good only to a “small/moderate extent:” 51 percent of blacks, 37 percent of Hispanics, 35 percent of Asians, 36 percent of American Indians, and 25 percent of whites.
The survey also asked about racially offensive behavior and threats or harm from other military personnel. A striking two-thirds said they had suffered anything from “insensitive language” to physical threats or violence: 63 percent of whites, 76 percent of blacks, 79 percent of Hispanics, 70 percent of Asians, and 76 percent of American Indians. When asked if opportunities for their race have gotten better or worse over the last five years, only 16 percent of whites thought things had improved. This compared with 39 percent of blacks, 47 percent of Hispanics, 50 percent of Asians and 41 percent of Indians. This report was so embarrassing to the Pentagon that it delayed release for two years.
Diversity is constantly promoted in the military, and anyone who is lukewarm about it has no prospects for promotion. Serving officers therefore dare not criticize it. Only after he retired did Army Green Beret Major Andy Messing argue that Special Forces units should be homogeneous because it gave them a better sense of identity. He said that differences — being black, Hispanic, Jewish or even overtly religious — add to the tensions of a grinding training regimen and dangerous combat missions.
Minority journalists have found that diversity is not always a blessing. Black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian journalists all have national professional associations, but formed an alliance in 1988 called Unity to promote more hiring of minorities and coverage of minority affairs. Far from enjoying the benefits of diversity, Unity suffered serious tensions, most publicly over the racial symbolism of the sites for its meetings. American Indians threatened to boycott Atlanta — heavily favored by blacks — because the Atlanta baseball team is called the Braves, and because the Georgia state government helped force out the Cherokees in 1830. Unity held its 1999 conference in Seattle, Washington, shortly after voters approved an initiative to end state- and local-government affirmative action. Many blacks refused to attend.
That year, Unity nearly fell apart. According to DeWayne Wickham, a black USA Today columnist, “What began as a survival mechanism has become an alliance of four organizations that have relatively little in common.” Unity survived, but even in 2008 its web page admitted that the group “may not always be an easy alliance.”
The more intimate the setting, the greater the challenges of diversity. Adopted children, for example, often report they never felt they fit in. In a British study of adults who had been adopted as children, 46 percent of whites adopted by whites said that although it was a positive experience they felt a sense of not belonging. In the case of transracial adoptions that figure jumped to close to 75 percent. Researchers reported that the constant refrain of non-white children adopted by whites was, “Love is not enough.”
There can be worse: The authors of a 2005 study on domestic violence in the United States reached the sobering conclusion that “the incidence of spousal homicide is 7.7 times higher in interracial marriages compared to interraracial marriages.”
One result of today’s immigration-driven diversity is that millions of Americans cannot talk to each other. Los Angeles, which is often said to point the way to America’s future, is home to people who speak more than 120 languages. As the Los Angeles Times has pointed out, this profusion of languages does not unite; it divides:
“The Filipino never hears the Persian radio program; it is impossible to tune in without buying a special radio — sold in Iranian boutiques — that uses a computer chip to receive a specially modified frequency. The Persian speaker never enters the Lithuanian church. The Lithuanian and the Hindi speakers take different freeway ramps into cultures divided by tracts and commercial strips and, most of all, how they speak.”
As immigrants cluster together, sharply-divided language islands arise: Russian in West Hollywood, Farsi in Beverly Hills, Mission Viejo and Laguna Niguel; Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley, Khmer in Long Beach, Armenian in Glendale. Some islands are tiny. Cecilia Miguel, originally from Guatemala, spoke only her native Indian language, Q’anjob’al, and lived a harrowingly isolated life. Authorities took her three children from her and put them into foster care because she could not explain how one got a black eye.
Other Angelinos become islands over time. After enough immigrants move in, earlier inhabitants may find themselves the only ones who do not speak the new language. The city of Monterey Park became famous in the 1980s because of a sudden influx of Chinese-speakers who infuriated whites by putting up signs only in Chinese. Months of tension and debate led to an ordinance that required English in addition to Chinese.
Whites kept moving out and dropped to about 12 percent of Monterey Park’s 60,000 people, making it the first mainland American city to have an Asian majority. There are now Chinese newspapers and cable channels, a huge selection of Chinese books in city libraries, and a large population of Chinese who live from year to year without speaking English.
Bridging the gap between Angelinos who do not have a common language is a constant challenge. Although naturalized citizens are supposed to be able to speak English, Los Angeles County prints ballots and voter registration papers in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Tagalog, and Korean. The California Department of Motor Vehicles translates documents into 30 languages, including Arabic, Greek, Hindi, Polish and Tongan.
Witnesses in trials need interpreters for more than 100 languages, at a huge cost to the state. In fiscal 1998-99 there were 193,909 man days of interpreter work in California trial courts and 91,600 days in Los Angeles Superior and Municipal courts. Sometimes trials must be delayed while the courts search for someone who can interpret exotic languages.
Hospitals often depend on a system of over-the-telephone interpreting that no one finds satisfactory. People have ended up stranded in mental hospitals because no one could understand what they were saying. Inner-city blacks must sometimes have their speech interpreted for doctors from India or China — or even Iowa.
There are more than 100 languages spoken by students in the Los Angeles public schools, and by 2000 the district was spending $3 million a year on translations into just a few of them: Armenian, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese. The translation unit always had a backlog and dared not advertise itself within the district for fear of being swamped.
Similar problems are moving East. For the 2001-2002 school year, Clark County, Nevada (which includes the city of Las Vegas), was spending so much money teaching English to Spanish-speaking students that other programs had to be “cut down to the bone,” according to superintendent Carlos Garcia. The county had reduced high school transportation, eliminated all middle school sports, and was seeking $77 million more from the state for the year’s English Language Learners instruction. Hispanic students accounted for 31 percent of students and were dropping out at an alarming rate.
Although it is frequently assumed that children quickly pick up English, a study by the California legislative analyst’s office found this is often not so. “We’re suggesting that there are kids who can go all the way through kindergarten to 12th grade and still be considered English language learners,” said Rob Manwaring, a policy analyst who worked on the report.
In 2000, the Supreme Court of New Mexico ruled that it was discriminatory to exclude people from jury duty just because they do not understand English. Since then, courts have been required to provide simultaneous interpreters. The cost runs from $30 an hour for common languages like Spanish to $180 an hour plus expenses for exotic dialects. The interpreters accompany the non-English-speakers into the jury room, but must declare that they served only as interpreters and did not take part in deliberations, which are supposed to be inviolate. So far, New Mexico is the only state to require interpreters for jurors.
Language complicates police work. Los Angeles police once picked up an elderly Korean who was lost and could not explain where he lived. They dropped him off far from home in the middle of the night. He was robbed and beaten and soon died.
In Pennsylvania, when officers pulled Miqueas Acosta over for driving with an expired safety sticker, they read him his rights in Spanish, but then spoke to him in English before searching his car. They found a kilo of cocaine worth $100,000, but Bucks County prosecutors could not use it as evidence because a Superior Court judge ruled police should have waited for an interpreter before proceeding with the search.
Charges also had to be dropped against Mahamu Kanneh, who was accused of repeatedly raping a seven-year-old girl, because the courts spent three years looking for an interpreter for Mr. Kanneh’s tribal language, Vai, which is spoken only in Liberia and Sierra Leone. A Maryland judge found that Mr. Kanneh’s right to a speedy trial had been violated. Mr. Kanneh had arrived in the United States as a refugee and attended high school and community college, but claimed he still needed an interpreter.
A family of Oaxacan Indians managed to run a massive, East Los Angeles heroin smuggling ring for two decades, in part because they communicated in an impenetrable code: Mixteco Bajo, an Indian language that is spoken 2,500 miles away from California in southern Mexico. “The language — that stalled us,” said Larry Zimmerman, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s lead detective on the case. In March 2009, officers arrested 48 members of the family, finally ending an operation that was making profits of roughly $2 million a month.
Linguistic diversity now means states must establish basic language standards for certain professions. In 2003, Wilfredo Laboy, superintendent of schools for Lawrence, Massachusetts, put two dozen of his teachers on unpaid leave for flunking a mandatory English proficiency test. It then became known that he, himself, had failed the test three times, though he complained he should not have to take it. “I’m trying to understand the congruence of what I do here every day and this stupid test,” he said. Later the Spanish-speaker managed to pass the test, and got a $6,000 raise added to his salary of $156,560.
Spanish is so well entrenched in some parts of the country that English has essentially disappeared. In 1999, the Texas border town of El Cenizo voted to conduct its monthly City Commission meetings and all other official business in Spanish. “I understand it is the United States, but what happens if people want to know what is going on?” asked Mayor Rafael Rodriguez.
Miami has also gone through phases of recognizing Spanish as an official language, and language remains a serious fault line. Since 1998, Florida has had a standardized high school graduation test, known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or FCAT. It tests knowledge at only the 10th-grade level but 2003 was the first year it had real bite: students who could not pass did not get a diploma. At Miami Senior High, nearly 90 percent of students were not native speakers of English, and no fewer than 100 of 500 seniors failed. In May, 200 students demonstrated outside the school, waving signs and chanting “No FCAT.” Their main complaint was that they had to take the test in English. “We are a Hispanic-based society,” said Gerrter Martin, who failed twice. “My dreams are [over],” said Jessica Duran. “I want to be a doctor and because of that I can’t do it.” State Rep. Ralph Arza, who was also a Miami High teacher, said he would introduce legislation to offer the FCAT in languages other than English, but as of 2008, the test was still being given only in English.
Semi-official Spanish has cropped up in Texas. In 2002, candidates for the Democratic primary for the Texas governor’s race debated publicly in both English and Spanish. Businessman Tony Sanchez and former Texas attorney general Dan Morales spoke in English for an hour and then switched to Spanish to talk about such things as racial preferences and relations with Mexico. Mr. Sanchez lost points by occasionally speaking English during the Spanish portion, and by pointing out that English is the “primary language” of Texas. One voter, Carlos Rivera, who watched the debate, accused Mr. Sanchez of “pandering to non-Hispanics.”
Some English-speaking Americans are wary of the extent to which Spanish has taken root in the United States. A Rasmussen poll taken in 2007 found that 82 percent of white voters and 78 percent of black voters thought employers should be allowed to require English only on the job. Only 45 percent of Hispanics thought so. The same poll found that only 13 percent of black or white voters thought that requiring English was a form of racism or bigotry.