The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 26, 2015

Latinos and African Americans: Shared experiences, shared solutions

May 26, 2015

Throughout this week, Urban Institute scholars offer evidence-based ideas for policies that can make a difference for communities in Baltimore and beyond grappling with inequality and injustice.  Although this series covers a lot of issues, we by no means address all the challenges that matter.

Over the past few months, America has seen the images of young, black Americans protesting for better treatment by the police and, more acutely, protesting against generations of unequal treatment in our society.  

Latinos share many of the same experiences of exclusion, disadvantage, and barriers to opportunity. Both communities of color make up a sizeable share of the population, particularly among younger generations. For example, Latinos and blacks comprise 39 percent of Americans ages 16 to 24.

To better understand the environments in which many of these Latino youth grow up, let’s take a look at the border counties of Texas: Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, Zapata, and Cameron. All five counties have populations that are about 90 percent Latino and have poverty rates above 30 percent. In contrast, the state of Texas has a poverty rate of 14 percent. Or consider Tulare and Fresno counties in California. Both counties have the highest poverty rate in the state and at least half their populations are Latino. Latinos are not newcomers to these areas; some have resided there for generations. The future does not look much better, as a third of all Latino children live in poverty.

In addition, with the criminalization of immigration law violations, Latinos account for over a third of inmates in federal prisons. Confrontations with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency are common. Over the past three years, 1 million immigrants have been deported, most of them Latinos. La Migra, as Latinos call ICE, has become so entrenched in the Latino psyche that the term has made it into corridos songs in the same way that commentary on police has become part of rap music.

Many black men have become disenfranchised by losing their right to vote due to incarceration. Many Latinos cannot vote because they are noncitizens. Only 6 percent of Latino youth voted in the 2008 and 2012 elections. CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) calls Latino youth, “the most civically alienated” ethnic group.

What can be done to stop this cycle of disadvantage and exclusion? Much has been said about programs to increase high school graduation rates and Latino parents’ engagement in their children’s education. Other less-mentioned interventions also show great potential, including the following:

  1. Empower minority youth and foster their capacity to effect social change through civic engagement programs. One example of such a program is Líderes, a nationwide leadership development and civic engagement program designed to empower, equip, and enable Latino youth to pursue positions of leadership and serve as agents of positive change in their communities. Civic engagement fosters a sense of belonging among young people and can help Latino youth become catalysts of community change. 
  2. Create linkages between disadvantaged communities and institutions such as the police, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, workforce boards under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, business groups, philanthropic organizations, and local institutions of higher education. These institutions should be a permanent fixture in these communities rather than only coming in during moments of crisis. 
  3. Foster understanding between different racial and ethnic groups to combat prejudice and solve common problems. The Southern Poverty Law Center has developed curricula for organizations interested in combating prejudice and increasing understanding between different ethnic and racial groups. These guidelines can be used to create alliances among different ethnic groups.
  4. Provide a mechanism in the federal government for the regularization of undocumented immigrants. Whether it is a path to legalization or citizenship, eliminating the fear of deportation could reduce tensions with enforcement agencies, increase the participation of Latinos in community affairs, and open up opportunities for economic advancement.

Illustration by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.