A Hispanic Civil Rights Movement

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By Juan Williams
Monday, April 10, 2006

The massive demonstrations by Hispanics across the country have the look of civil rights history. The crowds protesting punitive immigration legislation have been huge, rivaling or exceeding the gathering for the 1963 March on Washington. Is this in fact a major new civil rights movement?

Until now Hispanics have not been a political force or a major factor in national discussions of civil rights, though they have become the nation's largest minority. The politics of race are still dominated by conversations about black-white relations, and blacks remain the gatekeepers of racial representation on school boards and in city halls. In Congress, African Americans have a caucus more than twice the size of the Hispanic delegation (43 to 21), even though they are a smaller percentage of the population.

One big reason Hispanic power has been slow in maturing is that most Hispanics do not identify themselves as such. Their group reference has tended to be to homelands -- Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic. And of course there are racial differences, especially between black and white Hispanics.

But that changed recently, with marches that drew hundreds of thousands and created coalitions across the lines of Hispanic national identity. People from disparate Hispanic nations coalesced around the debate on illegal immigration. It took a radical step by the House -- giving serious thought to dragnet arrests of all illegal immigrants and charging them with a felony -- to achieve this. To some, the level of hatred and racism against immigrants seemed to match that once directed against blacks in this country.

Indeed, this is the same dynamic that struck sparks in the 1950s and '60s and flared into the black civil rights movement. The Supreme Court's 1954 decision on school desegregation implied a movement toward racial equality throughout American society. In response, segregationists launched a campaign of "massive resistance" to integration. Initially, very young people took the lead in the civil rights protests, much as they have in the current immigration rallies.

The facts of relatively low unemployment and strong economic growth say that immigrants -- as innovators, business owners, workers and customers in the U.S. economy -- have a future here. And Hispanic voters have a future in American politics. President Bush arguably won reelection in 2004 because he pushed the level of support for a Republican presidential candidate to new heights among Hispanics.

The organized power of the Catholic Church, both as a force in American politics and as the heart of the "sanctuary movement," to protect illegal immigrants from abuse is analogous to the role the black church and its white allies played in the civil rights movement.

The power of organized labor is being revived by immigrants -- legal and illegal. Add to this the growing power of Hispanic media and one senses a gathering force that could produce a true civil rights movement for the 21st century. But not without resistance. Polls show that large numbers of Americans, white and black, want the current wave of immigration to slow and even stop. The numbers reveal a large element of xenophobia in the form of accusations that immigrants are taking low-wage jobs from native-born Americans. In fact, immigrants, legal and illegal, add to economic activity.

Sadly, anxiety over the increasing Hispanic population has caused some leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP to become tongue-tied on the subject. Privately, these members of Congress point to prison riots in California between blacks and Hispanics and turf fights between black and Hispanic high school students as evidence of rising tension between minority groups. There is a reluctance to counter this fear-mongering with a forward-looking vision of new coalitions among people of color. Instead there has been a lot of pandering to the worst instincts of people who often share with Hispanics the problems of bad schools, high incarceration rates and life at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Of course, the angriest voices are still heard on the far right, asking, "Whose country is this anyway?" and denouncing "amnesty" for immigrants. Sometimes it's a thin cover, with strong racial overtones, for opposing any rational approach to letting people who are already here, holding jobs and paying taxes, become legal. There may be short-term benefits to this sort of pandering, but, as has been shown before, it can come back to hurt politicians.

The real issue is whether America can come to terms with the reality of change. The next question is whether an activated Hispanic coalition can hold together on issues beyond the current fight over immigration reform. Imagine the power of Hispanics joined with other minorities to stand up for better schools and pressure politicians for national health care.

We've seen a movie a lot like this before -- about 50 years ago. It ended with a country being transformed by a movement that called for it to live up to its founding ideals of equal rights for all. Here's hoping for another happy ending.

Juan Williams is a senior correspondent for National Public Radio, a political analyst for Fox News and author of "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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