HOUSTON -- Standing at the podium before some 3,000 NAACP members at their national convention last week, Hector Flores, president of LULAC, the nation's oldest Latino civil rights organization, suddenly seemed inspired.
"Viva NAACP!" he chanted repeatedly at the end of his speech.
Soon, the audience was on its feet, in enthusiastic applause.
"Viva LULAC! Viva America!"
It was the first time in memory that a LULAC leader had spoken before the NAACP convention. As such, Flores' appearance symbolized the relationship between the main civil rights organizations representing the two largest minority groups in the country --- there were emotional feelings of unity, but they were based on a particular speech on a particular day, not a full-fledged alliance.
"So much of our work in our communities depends upon the partnership we celebrate today," said Flores, who was elected president of the League of United Latin American Citizens last month. "As long as we continue to work together, our communities will continue to reap great rewards."
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Latinos have surpassed African-Americans as the largest ethnic group in the country. Buoyed by immigration, the Latino population increased 58 percent in the '90s, to 35.3 million in 2000. During that same period, the black population rose 16 percent, to 34.7 million.
As the Latino population continues to grow, the role of the NAACP --- an organization established to serve "colored people" --- is in question. Who is "colored," just African-Americans or others too?
Meanwhile, the existence of several Latino civil rights groups --- including LULAC, the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund --- makes creating a unified voice for minority ethnic groups more difficult.
At the core of the problem, members of these groups say, is the perception that the civil rights groups are too divided and competing for limited resources. Indeed, the battle for jobs, housing, social services and government funding has intensified with the economic downturn over the past two years. In addition, political differences have created some tensions between blacks, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and Latinos, who have a more diverse voting record.
The largest groups
The NAACP --- whose defined mission is "the protection and enhancement of the civil rights of African-Americans and other minorities" --- is the largest and oldest of the groups. Founded in 1909, the NAACP has 500,000 members and a staff of more than 220 people.
The two largest Latino groups are LULAC and La Raza. Established in 1929 in Corpus Christi, Texas, LULAC has 115,000 members and a staff of about 100. LULAC seeks "to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health and civil rights of the Hispanic population of the United States."
La Raza was created in 1968 in Phoenix and has a membership of 30,000 and a 100-member staff. Its mission is "to reduce poverty and discrimination, and improve life opportunities for Hispanic-Americans."
NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond said his organization is eager to strengthen ties with Latino civil rights groups. "It is obvious that there is a growing population of Hispanics in the United States and they have been and will be important allies and partners in the fight for civil rights," said Bond, a former Georgia legislator.
Latino leaders say they, too, want to build coalitions and create a united voice on common issues.
La Raza Senior Vice President Charles Kamasaki said the primary missions of the NAACP and La Raza are "quite similar." "Both of us seek to address poverty and discrimination in our respective communities," Kamasaki said. But Kamasaki said he thinks political and cultural differences --- and lack of knowledge about discrimination against Latinos and other nonblack minorities --- may keep African-Americans and Latinos from coming together more quickly.
"I hope for rapid progress towards strengthened coalitions and activity," said Kamasaki, who is Japanese-American and was born in Texas. "But we have prejudice, stereotypes and barriers to overcome first."
Among the barriers is a feeling among some African-Americans that blacks are less accepted into the mainstream than other ethnic groups. In addition, despite decades of political activism and get-out-the-vote campaigns, some NAACP members feel their organization is not taken seriously by political candidates. Bond pointed out that some NAACP members felt snubbed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry because he spoke at the LULAC convention in Houston last month but declined to speak before the NAACP.
But Bond said division and debate over individual issues could only weaken the potential power base of black and brown America. "We can't allow outsiders to divide coalitions," Bond said. "There is no profit in competing for who suffered most."
Among Latinos, some say competition for power is a barrier to the growth of their civil rights movement. In addition to LULAC and La Raza, there are at least 50 national and 500 local Latino and professional and civil rights groups. Also, some Latinos have affiliated with the NAACP.
"We have so many distinct groups in the Latino community and they have different cultural perspectives and orientations," said Josie Valdez, vice president of the Salt Lake City NAACP and a third generation Mexican-American. "Even though we are all Latinos, we just don't always agree."
One organization that works to unite civil rights groups is the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Established in 1950, the conference brings together some 100 groups representing minorities, women, unions, gays and others.
The Leadership Conference plays a critical role in some regions of the country with large numbers of Latino residents. In Texas, for example, Latinos made up 32 percent of the population in 2000, and blacks accounted for 12 percent. (In Georgia, despite fast growth in the Latino population, blacks were still the dominant minority, making up 29 percent of the population as opposed to 5 percent for Latinos.)
Also, in some largely white areas, civil rights groups have become very integrated, with a strong emphasis on general human rights. Membership in the NAACP chapter in Salt Lake City, for example, is divided equally between blacks, whites and Latinos, with a few Native Americans as well. Among the officers are a black president, a Latino vice president, a Native American vice president and a white treasurer.
Valdez said she thinks people of various backgrounds are open to working for another group's civil rights if they feel welcome and sense common goals.
"I don't think LULAC or La Raza or the NAACP has made it a priority to build coalitions," said Valdez. "It's not that they aren't interested; there just hasn't yet been a burning critical issue to really bring us together. Everyone has been caught up in their own fight."
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