The Common Good
August 2004

The New 'New South'

by Jorge Mariscal | August 2004

Latin American immigrants are changing the U.S. political landscape.

In the land of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement'

In the land of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement's most dramatic struggles, a black-white universe of race relations is slowly giving way to a more complex terrain that will determine all future U.S. cultural and political projects. Throughout the Deep South, or what Strom Thurmond used to call the Old Confederacy, immigrants from Latin America are changing the face of large urban centers, small towns, and rural settings.

The increase in Latinos between 1990 and 2000 in North Carolina was 393.9 percent, in Arkansas 337 percent, in Georgia 299.6 percent, and in Tennessee 278.2 percent. In Mississippi, the number of Latinos more than doubled during the 1990s. And these numbers are probably too low given the Census Bureau's track record of undercounting Latinos.

Demographic transformations in the Southern states are the most dramatic. But large communities of indigenous people from Latin America also can be found in Brooklyn, Hartford, Chicago, and Boston. In the region traditionally associated with ethnic Mexican people - the Southwest - the "latinoization" of the cultural landscape continues its natural course.

In some urban spaces, Southeast Asians, Central Americans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans live side by side with other working-class families. Recently, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington gave an Ivy League imprimatur to a resurgent nativist backlash by singling out Latinos as "the most significant threat to American culture."

According to the 2000 census, more legal immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1990s than in any previous decade in U.S. history. The economic boom of the Clinton years attracted large numbers of people from around the world. The majority of these legal immigrants came from Latin America (approximately 51 percent, with 26 percent from Asian countries).

Given the stunning demographic changes, the electoral landscape is slowly shifting, but it will be some time before we can fully understand the consequences. Many Latinos, especially first generation immigrants, do not vote and have yet to fully experience the effects of long-standing institutional racism in education, employment, and housing. Many of the children of these new arrivals will beat the odds and become successful, but many more will be tracked into the service sector, the lowest ranks of the military, or prison.

A SERIES OF recent lawsuits suggests that in those communities where the influx of new immigrants has been highest, law enforcement agencies have increased their use of racial profiling. Tensions between white youth and youth of color are on the rise in areas such as San Diego and Riverside counties in California, where "White Power" groups recruit from among disgruntled working-class youth. Last September, white students at Elsinore High School in Riverside County confronted Latino students with racial insults and flags bearing iron crosses and swastikas. By the end of the school year, administrators at several other schools were grappling with similar incidents. In many areas, the Latino population continues to grow as white numbers decrease. These changes - coupled with structural racism, shrinking state budgets, and a Pentagon-driven economy that strips away the social safety net - bode ill for the future.

And yet, as in previous periods of rapid change, the conditions for progressive social movements are gradually taking shape. The struggle for economic justice, racial equality, and international peace and cooperation will be led by young people who can imagine a better world than the one they have inherited. Perhaps at this very moment, somewhere in a schoolhouse in Georgia or Michigan or Illinois, the next Césár Chávez or Dolores Huerta is preparing for that struggle.

Jorge Mariscal is director of the Chicano/a-Latino/a Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego.

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