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Commentary: Black-brown coalitions are tough to sustain

  • Story Highlights
  • Martin: The nation's largest minority group carries significant weight
  • Martin: Pundits say African-Americans, Hispanics will align for political gain
  • Martin: Leaders must exercise a broader view, not get stuck in power plays
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By Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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Hispanics have overtaken African-Americans as the nation's largest minority. Join Roland Martin and columnist Ruben Navarrette on CNN.com Live Video at 12:30 p.m. ET Wednesday when they will discuss this issue and some of your "Sound Off" comments.

(CNN) -- With Hispanics being the nation's largest minority group, the general assumption among many political and social pundits is that they will align themselves with African-Americans to represent a potent political force on the local, state and national level.

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Roland Martin says Hispanics and blacks can't afford to be egomaniacal and regard each other as irrelevant.

But as someone who has seen this so-called phenomenon up close, I can tell you that forging a multiethnic coalition will be very difficult.

As a native Houstonian, a longtime resident of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and now a resident of Chicago, it has been interesting to watch as a number of local leaders have tried to establish such a connection.

Back in 1989, when I interned at the Houston Defender, the city's top black newspaper, we ran a front page story about a black-brown coalition. The city's black and Hispanic leaders announced their effort to seek a variety of appointments in the city's fire and police departments, as well as in the city's school district.

Yet it was always a fragile coalition as each party tried to establish supremacy over the other. And one move could bring it all crashing down.

That was the case in 1994 when Rod Paige, an African-American member of the Houston Independent School District board of trustees, was tapped as superintendent. Hispanics were angry, saying they were shut out of the decision-making, and vowed never to let it happen again.

I saw the same black-brown breakdown in 1997 when Yvonne Gonzalez, a Mexican-American woman, was chosen as head of the Dallas school district. African-Americans in the city squared off against Hispanics over whether someone from their ethnic group should be chosen as superintendent, and it continued repeatedly with protests, charges of racism flying back and forth, and complete mistrust between both.

Why such acrimony?

Pure and simple: power.

In America, the nation's largest minority group carries significant weight. It's sort of like being the daddy at the dinner table -- you get the biggest piece of chicken or the largest slice of cake.

Political power means jobs and resources. And the one group with the most power wants to benefit their own, and sacrifice everyone else.

For years, African-Americans have argued that their sheer size in terms of numbers requires that they get a seat at the table. Coupled with African- Americans leading the civil rights movement, they say Hispanics shouldn't easily benefit from their hard work and that blacks should primarily reap the benefits.

But that all changed when Hispanics became the largest minority, often exceeding African-Americans in terms of the number of students in the school system, the primary battleground in many cities.

Today, we see that spilling over into every area, even business. African-American ad agencies, and media outlets, complain that the dollars set aside for blacks has been savagely reduced and shifted to Hispanic media.

So what you find is African-Americans and Hispanics fighting it out over a piece of the pie, while the larger ethnic group -- whites -- remains the same.

Is it possible to see a true black-brown coalition that greatly benefits both minority groups? Maybe. But it's going to take a helluva lot of work between the leading organizations such as the NAACP, National Urban League, La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Instead of seeing one as taking from the other, what leaders in both camps should be exercising is a broader view. Blacks are not the enemy of Hispanics, and vice versa. The enemy is a lack of quality of education, being shut out of the economic levers, as well as poor health care. The resources of this nation should go where the need is. And if that means a larger portion going to one group over the other, fine. But we can't sacrifice one for the other.

In cities across the nation, African-Americans and Hispanics can find common ground on common interests. And where they differ, they should simply disagree.

But that requires trust, and neither group can afford to be egomaniacal and regard the other as irrelevant. Hispanics and blacks aren't going anywhere, and they better resolve their disputes, or watch both groups remain at a standstill. And that's not good for anyone.

Roland S. Martin is a nationally award-winning, multifaceted journalist and CNN contributor. Martin is studying to receive his master's degree in Christian Communications at Louisiana Baptist University, and is the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith." You can read more of his columns at www.rolandsmartin.com

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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