LOS ANGELES While Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama rebutted each other last week before a star-studded audience in the Democratic presidential debate in Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, residents elsewhere in Los Angeles County were dodging bullets in a race war.
An outbreak of gang shootings between blacks and Latinos in the nearby city of Monrovia had left a 64-year-old black man and a 16-year-old Latina dead, according to news reports. Police said the two were innocent bystanders in a brawl that left seven people dead or wounded in gunfire by suspected black and Latino gang members.
The debaters and the gang-bangers are related in the weird ways that politics link everything in our society. Sporadic reports of interracial violence feed anxieties, justifiably or not, about the ability of blacks and Hispanics to get along, whether on the streets, in the workplace or in politics.
Those concerns surfaced into national politics as the presidential campaign moved to Arizona, Florida, California and other states with large Hispanic populations. Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based consultant to the Clinton campaign on cross-cultural relations, kicked off a new national conversation when he said in an interview that, "The Hispanic voter and I want to say this very carefully has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."
To get another view, I called Roberto Suro, a University of Southern Californiacommunications professor who, until recently, was head of the Pew Hispanic Center. When he heard that I was calling to ask about black-Hispanic relations, he said with a laugh, "Well, we're back to where we started, aren't we, Clarence?"
Yes. Thirty years ago, Roberto and I were teamed up as young Chicago Tribune reporters charged with investigating apparently growing tensions between African- and Hispanic-Americans.
It was the 1970s. Identifiable blacks and Latinos were still a fairly new thing in mainstream newsrooms. Part of our unwritten job description in those turbulent times, it seemed, was to keep our eyes peeled for possible riots by our city's darker-skinned people.
For some reason, a lot of white folks, in particular, expected blacks and Hispanics to have a natural affinity for allying with each other, as if all non-whites think alike.
Our Tribune city editor decided to dispatch what I called his "Woodward and Bernstein of color" to figure out how well blacks and Latinos were getting along or not.
In short, we found that most blacks and Latinos were following the same patterns of ambition, envy, overcoming and upward mobility as the salad bowl of ethnics who preceded them. Sociologists call this process "ethnic succession." It is at least as old and as American as apple pie. So is ethnic anxiety.
Benjamin Franklin, it is worth noting, railed in 1751 against the "swarm" of Germans, whom he called "Palatine boors," who were "herding together" and turning Pennsylvania into a "colony of aliens" who will "never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion." In today's world, Franklin might well be a star on cable television or talk radio.
Times change, but patterns of ethnic succession and interethnic anxiety stay the same. Over time, groups settle, work hard and move up the economic ladder, perhaps to look down on the new "swarm" that followed them into their old neighborhoods.
Gang fights and other violence tend to occur where they always have, among the most poor and desperate and the victims are usually of the same race as their assailants.
Politically, the most rewarding aspect of ethnic success is not how often people vote for "their own kind" but how often they don't. Contrary to Bendixen's observation, Hispanics have voted in overwhelming numbers for former black mayors like Chicago's Harold Washington, New York's David Dinkins and Dallas' Ron Kirk. Blacks have similarly turned out for Hispanic politicians when they view it, as any savvy voter would, as being in their interest.
But first, as Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa of Los Angeles told me in the spin room backstage at the debate, voters need to get to know the candidate, regardless of ethnicity.
"The idea that Latinos won't vote for someone because of their race or ethnicity just doesn't pass the smell test," Villaraigosa said. "You know, when people say to me, African-Americans didn't vote for you in your first race, I say, well, they didn't know me! In my second race, they did. And they voted for me overwhelmingly!"
That's another important part of human nature that hasn't changed. The better we get to know each other as individuals, the better we will get along as groups.