Latinos' Impact on Race Relations

Jun 17, 2009

Today we bring the Latino population into our Project Milwaukee series on race relations. The number of Latinos in Milwaukee County has been growing rapidly – up 40 percent since the year 2000. Now, Latinos make up 12 percent of the county’s population. WUWM’s Erin Toner reports on how this demographic shift has impacted the area’s racial dynamic.

South Division High School has a mainly Latino, black and Asian student body.

You can find an example of Milwaukee’s changing demographics at South Division High School, in the heart of the city’s mainly Latino south side.

“Alright, well, we should head in. School time, golden rule time. Let’s learn so we can earn.”

Mark Kuxhause has been the principal here for 16 years. He says during that time, South Division has become less Latino and more black. It’s a sign that Latinos are migrating to other parts of the community, while blacks, who’ve traditionally lived on Milwaukee’s north side, are moving south.

“We used to have almost maybe half the school were kids who, you know, weren’t fluent, weren’t proficient in English and now I feel that’s probably about 30 percent. And then our African American population has grown over the years. The neighborhood is becoming more African American if you look around, just the neighborhood’s changing,” Kuxhause says.

What you won’t find at South Division any longer, are a lot of white students.

“If demography is destiny, where do you find the future demography? Find it in the youth.”

Tom Tonnesen is associate director of the UW System Institute on Race and Ethnicity. He says Milwaukee is now a majority minority city, that is, more people of color than whites live here, and the trend is expected to continue.

“That has huge implications especially if there is no place residentially for those folks to go,” Tonnesen says.

In other words, Tonnesen says there’s competition in the city among Latinos and blacks for limited, low-income housing. They’re also competing for jobs.

“And of course it’s exacerbated by the kind of economic straits that we’re in at this time, and also by the fact the days of Milwaukee being a manufacturing economy are long gone, and the kind of service sector jobs that may be available in this economy, tend to be populated more by Latinos than by African Americans,” Tonnesen says.

But while there is competition for jobs and housing, there are also shared experiences that have brought blacks and Latinos together, including their battles against prejudice. Enrique Figueroa is director of the Roberto Hernandez Center at UWM.

“We have a lot of relationships with the African American community. The Chicano movement that came out of the Civil Rights movement had a lot of interaction with African Americans in our country. And there’s a large legacy and a deep legacy in those two communities,” Figueroa says.

I also asked Figueroa and others how Latinos have changed the racial dynamic in Milwaukee. He says their presence has meant race is no longer just about skin color.

“It’s language, it’s how you speak, it’s your last name, it’s how closely you associate yourself with immigrants. Those are the things that put barriers in between and how race manifests itself,” Figueroa says.

Researcher Tom Tonnesen agrees that race relations between whites and blacks, and whites and Latinos, are different.

“Once Latinos become more proficient in English, the tension between whites and Latinos tends to decrease. In some ways the language is an erasable characteristic – and of course I don’t mean that in trying to be proponent of that – whereas of course skin color is not,” Tonnesen says.

Figueroa and Tonnesen say leaders in the community – white, black, Latino and others – have a duty to reach out to educate each other.

“There’s eventually going to be more and more of an intermingling if you will, whether it’s at the lower level of income and class or it’s going to be at the middle level or at the higher level, we need to begin that process,” Figueroa says.

“The demographics aren’t lying and so what does that leave us? It either leaves us in our own little cubby holes or it allows us to look for where we can find common ties and to coalesce and to bind,” Tonnesen says.

It appears most of the mingling now is happening among young people. I met 18-year-old George Rainey at South Division High School, just weeks before he would graduate. He says he loved the school’s diversity.

“It opens up your surroundings and opens up your interest in other people ‘cause some people see only one race and that’s what they’re adapted to,” Rainey says.

I asked Rainey whether there are conflicts between kids of different races.

“I mean we have our conflicts, but we even have conflicts between the same races, too, so you can’t use that as an excuse,” Rainey says.