A 15-year-old Mexican youth stands on the corner talking to two friends. A 17-year-old black teen spots the trio and quickly approaches. He pulls out a knife, demanding the Mexican youth’s iPod while shouting anti-Latino slurs. The 17-year-old flees with the stolen items. The victim’s two companions, who are African-American, are unharmed.
This is one of the latest examples of what authorities say is an apparent uptick nationally in bias crimes against Latinos, and immigrant advocates and community leaders say they are particularly concerned about a spate of alleged hate crimes where African-Americans were the perpetrators.
“We saw, in the months of June and July, a tremendous increase —attacks at such a pace that it caused alarm,” said Mexican Consul General Ruben Beltran, whose office is supporting victims of a rash of violence against Mexicans on Staten Island, New York, that police say were bias crimes. “Hopefully, the worst is over.”
Although the FBI doesn’t maintain specific data on hate crimes committed by blacks against Latinos, hate crimes against Latinos rose by 40 percent from 2003 to 2007 before dropping slightly in 2008, according to FBI hate crime statistics. And the number of hate crimes committed by African-Americans also rose from 11.8 percent in 2004 to 20.2 percent in 2008, FBI data shows. 2009 data is not yet available.
Although evidence is anecdotal, some civil rights campaigners say cases of violent crime involving African-Americans and Latinos in the last few months illustrate an alarming trend. In Staten Island, there have been at least 11 suspected racially motivated attacks in the last five months, with 10 of the incidents involved African-Americans targeting Mexicans, police said.
Most recently, on Aug. 21, 17-year-old Yashua Plair allegedly robbed the 15-year-old Mexican victim at knifepoint while yelling racial epithets. Police charged Plair with robbery and menacing as a hate crime.
“I’m sorry what is happening is happening,” said Ed Josey, president of the Staten Island NAACP. “Mexicans, or anyone else, should not have to be walking around on the streets and worry about being beaten.”
Police responded by ramping up their presence on Staten Island — on horseback, in patrol cars and manning police towers — but Josey said the patrol increase has had an unintended effect: police stopping and searching innocent residents and people too scared to shop or do business there because of the perception that Staten Island is a hotbed of racial violence.
“There’s a lot of things blowing over from this incident,” he said. Josey cautioned against a blanket condemnation of the roughly 48,000 African-American Staten Island residents, noting that only a fraction of that number were actually targeting Latinos. He said those carrying out bias crimes may already be criminally-minded or display other dysfunctional behavior.
“It’s not a widespread issue,” he said. “It’s a few. But a few is too many.” Beltran said many Mexicans were surprised by the spate of attacks in the city, which is considered immigrant-friendly. He said most have returned to their daily lives, but are taking more safety measures, like not walking home alone.
“They are resilient,” Beltran said. “In some areas, they’re on guard, but they don’t live in fear, they don’t live under siege.”Beltran said he doesn’t believe that anti-immigrant rhetoric had taken hold in New York, but tensions due to demographic changes, along with the view that Mexicans won’t report crimes because of an undocumented status, could be to blame for the rash of attacks.
New York isn’t the only city touched by racially tinged offenses involving Latinos and blacks. Baltimore, Md. has seen a string of seemingly racially-motivated attacks against Latinos. Just last month, Baltimore Police arrested 19-year-old Jermaine R. Holley, who is African-American, after he allegedly beat Martin Reyes, 51-year-old
Honduran, to death with a wooden stake. Holley, who police said suffers from schizophrenia and may have been off of his medication, later professed his deep hatred of “Mexicans.” A week earlier, Baltimore police said an African-American 14-year-old girl, Arteesha Holt, shot two Latino men, one fatally, during a botched robbery that
could have been part of a gang initiation.
However, some Latinos have also been accused of committing hate-fueled violence against African-Americans. In Los Angeles, a jury is now deliberating a case against two Latino gang members, who allegedly gunned down a 14-year-old in 2006 because she was black, and then fatally stabbed a potential witness.
Hate crimes against African-Americans jumped 12.8 percent from 2003 to 2008 to 2,876. African-Americans also suffered the largest proportion of bias crime of any racial or ethnic group during that period.
Leslie Watson Malachi, director of African-American Religious Affairs for People for the American Way, a non-profit that works on issues including immigration reform, discrimination, equal rights and access to quality education, said racism may not be the motive for the violence, but a resentment that stems from a lack of job security or other economic concerns.
“Quite often, when there is anger, stress and tension, there is a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness,” Watson Malachi said. “Some of that will manifest into physical violence, and quite often, it’s against those who are near. That is why I place caution on this necessarily being about hate. It is frustration, it is distress, it is
hopelessness. It is a lot of pain.”
Josey cited the economic downturn along with what could be crimes of convenience as some of the causes of the spate of hate crimes. “There’s so many jobs being lost, people’s homes are in foreclosure, poor resources,” Josey said. “Are these reasons why we should go out and beat a person? I don’t think so. But when people go through the stages that they’re going through right now, a lot of negative things take place. When people lose their jobs, they tend to do things they may not do ordinarily.”
On the national level, some in the black church community have been working to bring the greater cohesion between African-Americans and Latinos by backing a more tolerant immigration reform policy.
For example, last month, the Washington D.C.-based Progressive National Baptist Convention ok’d a resolution that Watson Malachi authored, that supported comprehensive immigration reform, including creating fair labor standards, keeping families together, offering a reasonable pathway to citizenship and “enforcement laws that do not promote or engage in racial profiling, intimidation, dehumanization or
“We made a decision that we wanted to address it,” Watson Malachi said, “and address it in a way that promotes peace, that promotes dignity (and) that promotes honor and respect.”
Back on Staten Island, the Mexican Consulate of New York and the NAACP
are trying to stem the tide of racial violence by participating in “I Am Staten Island,” a campaign fronted by residents, churches, the District Attorney, local officials and others to end hate crime there and foster solidarity between the area’s ethnic groups. Josey said the NAACP and other community advocacy organizations are also considering applying for grants for job training and recreational facilities. Beltran appealed for unity amongst African-Americans, Latinos and other minority groups, partly because of the similar struggles the groups have bore in the U.S. “We are on the same page at the end of the day,” he said.