African-Americans, Hispanics Move to Bridge Bitter Divide

FIRES IN the streets of Miami seven years ago prompted Josie Poitier to seek a solution to the ethnic and racial tension corroding Miami's Liberty City neighborhood. “It was very hard. The tension was there. You went through the streets and there were fires everywhere and people who wanted to throw bottles at you,” said Poitier.

It was in the aftermath of three days of riots in 1989 sparked by the shooting of an African American by a Hispanic police officer that prompted her to find answers. She invited Hispanics, African Americans and others to meet in her home on Good Friday. She only wanted them to break bread and talk. That tradition has expanded, and this year Poitier expects about 150 people to join the annual celebration, which has since moved to her parish, Holy Redeemer Church. The initiative is meant “to bridge the gap in the community where people weren't getting together,” said Poitier, who's African-American and serves as community affairs representative for Miami's police department.

Several national efforts are also trying to bring Hispanics and African-Americans closer together. Roberto Pina, coordinator for the dialogue that has been dubbed “Building Bridges in Black and Brown,” said: “If both of the communities just learned about each other, there would be a kind of solidarity there. So when issues come up, we won't be fighting over ‘we want that, we want this.’”

The U.S. bishops addressed relations between the communities in their recent pastoral, Reconciled Through Christ, which was drawn up by Hispanic and African-American prelates. The letter emphasizes the “common roots” between the two cultures, said Bishop Agustin Roman, an auxiliary of the Miami archdiocese, and one of the letter's authors. “This is a beautiful work, the fruit of two years of dialogue,” the bishop said.

Coadjutor Bishop Roberto Gonzalez of Corpus Christi, Texas, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Hispanic Affairs, and Auxiliary Bishop Curtis Guillory of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the Committee on African-American Catholics, in a preface express their hope that the statement would “promote a sense of togetherness, a source of joy and inspiration, and a sense of responsibility for each other.”

But can such well-meaning efforts heal the often-bitter divisions between the communities? No matter what, it will be a huge challenge to reconcile the country's approximately 20 million Hispanic Catholics and their approximately 3 million African-American counterparts.

The situation in Miami is instructive. Even eight years after the last outburst of violence, tensions remain. The city was hit by a Hispanic boycott of black business in the early 1990s, and divisions were again brought to light during 1995 hearings by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: blacks felt left out; hispanics believed they were being discriminated against; and whites were fleeing the city. More recently, African-Americans were incensed at losing a seat on the city council to a Hispanic, with one local paper calling it a “power grab.”

“There's a lot of feeling in this community,” said Oblate Father Richard Sudlik, pastor of Holy Redeemer, which is predominantly African-American. “I'm sure when you start to talk to folks, they feel they're getting the short end of the stick.”

Los Angeles has also had its share of conflict, and dialogue there between Hispanics and African-Americans has been tough, said Deacon Luis Velasquez, assistant director for Hispanic ministries for the archdiocese. “I don't think there exists the sense of community that is necessary among Christians.” One major complaint from the black community is that Hispanics are taking their jobs, he said. The divisions between blacks and Hispanics is partially attributable to each “living pretty much in isolated circumstances,” said Beverly Carroll, executive director for the U.S. bishops'secretariat for African-American Catholics.

“Even in integrated neighborhoods there can be a lack of a shared sense of history,” said Pina, who is on staff at the Mexican-American Cultural Center in San Antonio. “I was born on the east side of San Antonio, which is primarily black,” he said. “We were a pocket” of Hispanics. So he learned to speak English using black slang, and went to school with black students. It wasn't until later that he learned about that community's struggle in the civil rights movement. He believes progress in relations would come more easily if the communities knew more about each other's history.

An added complication of the relationship is the question of cultural identity. The bishops' pastoral makes note of this, citing the 1990 census: “a substantial number of Hispanic people identify themselves as racially black.” Ella Simmons, an African-American ministry director in the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., has had to lengthen the name of her office from “Black Ministries” to “Black, African, Caribbean and Native American Ministry.”

Where do black Hispanics, such as those from the Dominican Republic, fit into the black experience in Miami? asked Pina. “And how do they get along in the community, and why is it so much easier for them here than for Mexican Americans in the South?”

Such difficult questions fuel the dialogue, promoters say. The fact that both blacks and Hispanics have experienced economic hardship and discrimination is not completely disadvantageous according to the bishops. That common ground furthers their sense of “the necessity to pull each other up,” said the USCC's Carroll. “When they talk about [its effect on] poverty, they talk about African Americans and Hispanics.”

The two groups are focused on many of the same issues: voter registration, housing, education, substance abuse, strengthening families. “Blacks and Hispanics tend to share views on some thorny political issues,” said Velasquez. In California, many African-Americans voted along with Hispanics against Proposition 187—the measure to bar education and some health care to families of illegal aliens—as well as Proposition 209, that would end affirmative action in colleges, he said. And Hispanics can learn from the black experience, according to Pina, who noted that Hispanics “are 10 years behind” in the area of jobs and civil rights.

The bishops, and others, blame many of the perceived differences between blacks and Hispanics on the media. The bishops' pastoral calls it the “roaring wind,” that, “eager to report human conflict, overstates our disputes.”

“Our violence is what always makes news,” said Pina. But through dialogue, the groups are able to realize, “how we're hurting each other by being pitted against each other.”

The safest place for the encounter between the communities, many agree, is in the Church. Pastoral and other observers suggest the process can begin with the groups jointly sharing their holidays. In Chicago, St. Basil/Visitation Parish—an African-American and Hispanic Parish, celebrates both Posadas—the Hispanic nine-day celebration before Christmas—and Kwanzaa—the African American “first fruits” holiday following Christmas—said its pastor, Father Brian Walker. People from both groups attend each other's celebrations, he said. “We really do quite well together.”

Christopher Martinez is based in Miami, Fla.