The increasing presence of Latinos living in the Southeast is one of the most obvious recent demographic changes occurring in this region. Between 2000 and 2007 the Latino population in Georgia and North Carolina grew by over 300,000 and 250,000 people, respectively, while other states in the region, such as Alabama and Kentucky, saw more modest but substantial increases of approximately 40,000.
Much of this population increase consists of people moving in from other parts of the U.S. or from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. At the same time, however, the African American population in the Southeast has also been increasing, largely due to the fact that more blacks have been moving to states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee than are moving away to other states.
This has produced a novel situation in many communities in the region – African Americans and Latinos encountering each other in work settings, schools, neighborhoods, and other places. While some interactions have gone smoothly, many have been fraught with misunderstanding, competition, suspicion, hostility, and conflict.
Yet observers have noted that many members of both of these groups face some similar handicaps: difficulties in finding higher-paying jobs, discrimination in housing, inadequate educational opportunities, lack of good health care, mistreatment by law enforcement officials. Perceptive individuals within African American and Latino communities in the Southeast have suggested that they have much to gain by working together to solve mutual problems, and they have been attempting to make connections, start dialogues, and act in cooperative ways to transcend the rather deep divisions that separate them.
How can this be accomplished? Who is actually working on this? What problems do they encounter, and what successes have they had? What can be learned from their experiences? These are the questions that our research seeks to answer. Towards that goal, we began by identifying groups or organizations in the Southeast that are working to bridge the gap between African Americans and Latinos in pursuit of mutual goals. After locating several we focused on four that generously allowed us to meet with them and hold focus group interviews with them. Together they effectively reflect a wide range of types of communities in the region that have African American and Latino residents: a rural county (Atkinson County, Georgia), a medium-sized city (Greensboro, North Carolina), a modern international city (Miami, Florida), and a suburban county in a sprawling metropolitan area (Cobb County, Georgia). Of these, the first two are organized by ministers and have a religious base, while the latter two are more secular efforts at “black-brown” cooperation. Our report describes each of these groups and their work in detail, and then provides our conclusions and offers a set of nine elements that we think are critically important in creating a successful coalition for these two groups.
In this summary we want to highlight and emphasize four of the most significant things that we have learned from our research:
Roadblocks: Several factors limit the growth prospects of African American-Latino collaborations, but two stand out prominently. One is that many people, within both groups, do not see a need for, or a strategic advantage in, pursuing a coalition. In each focus group the point was made that they often meet resistance from African Americans and Latinos who mistrust or are hostile towards each other, or who prefer working and organizing to solve problems just within their own community. Ultimately, to grow a strong black-brown coalition, more African Americans and Latinos must come to believe that although their interests may be in opposition on some issues, on other important issues they both stand to gain a lot more by working together than by going it alone. A second roadblock is a language barrier – inability to communicate effectively or comfortably with each other hinders their efforts to collaborate. Some groups have dealt with this relatively effectively (by relying on bilingual members or by bringing in Spanish language students or faculty from nearby colleges to help translate at meeting or events, and by printing signs and flyers in English and Spanish).
Leadership: The leaders of a black-brown collaboration must understand the situation and community context very well, be able to work effectively with others, have excellent plans of action, and an ability to attract resources. The most successful of these collaborations have put together a leadership development program and also sponsors frequent educational programs that enhance leadership quality. Another useful leadership role is as a “bridge-builder” who encourages or inspires African Americans and Latinos to cross group boundaries and get to know people in the other group. Good leadership also involves an ability to select issues that can be “quick wins,” which build enthusiasm and a sense of efficacy among coalition members.
Networks and Resources: The more successful African American-Latino collaborations are well-connected with a network of other regional organizations that serve as allies providing advice, in-kind assistance, and by sending participants to events or programs. Their network also includes foundations that serve as funding sources and national organizations that are working on similar issues that the concern the black-brown collaboration (e.g., labor, housing, health care). We found that collaborations that are rural or relatively new are not so well connected to these networks and could use assistance on this. These are also groups that are in need of other resources as well, which places a great strain on the leaders or key activists.
Trust: Coalition-building is a pragmatic and political endeavor, especially when seeking resources, attempting to mobilize community support, and (as is often necessary) putting pressure on public officials. But it is also an emotional process in which fears are confronted, tentative gestures and acts of kindness may be appreciated, rebuffed, or not even recognized, and trust in each other can be gained or lost. Each of the African American-Latino collaborations we studied has worked hard to cultivate a positive emotional atmosphere and sense of trust in each other, for without that nothing else will move forward. For some this emotional work is grounded in their religious or spiritual faith and institutionalized in church activities, while for others it springs up in activities such as multicultural dance or musical programs, the study of each group’s history, or shared “pot-luck” dinners. The essential point is a willingness to cross boundaries, confront fears, and embrace the humanity that each community possesses.
Overall, our intention in studying this social phenomenon was not purely “academic." Ideally, we hope it serves as a valuable resource for local community leaders and activists who are confronting similar challenges. The South, as depicted within the annals of history, has been irrevocably changed into a multicultural, multilingual society where strangers have the opportunity to become allies. This possibility of coalition building is not idealism run amok, but a necessity if African Americans and Latinos want to further define their reality within the political process. This document offers all who struggle for freedom, justice and equality a glimpse into what it can be. The individuals interviewed were ordinary people who collectively became extraordinary, not for glory or praise, but to ensure that their families and communities would also partake of the American dream.