Mitchell Column: Curie fiasco reveals growing rift between blacks, Hispanics
Frank Avila claims Tom Ramos is getting a bum rap. Ramos is the local school council chairman at Curie High School, where the Hispanic-majority board voted twice to oust Jerryelyn Jones, an African-American principal who has led Curie for eight years. Avila, a lawyer and fierce Daley critic, called me last week to rant about how Ramos is being portrayed in the media.
"One of the most unfair things about this is they are trying to turn this into a racial incident," Avila said. "This man's wife came to me and said she couldn't handle all of this stress."
Usually, I dread those types of calls. But I was eager to have a conversation with Avila.
As one of the attorneys for Aaron Patterson -- the South Side man who was released from Death Row, only to end up back in prison charged with other crimes -- I didn't think Avila would bite his tongue.
If anyone ought to understand why race is often a subtext to larger issues -- whether it's police brutality or school funding -- it ought to be him.
More important, Avila is part of the fragile coalition between blacks and browns that is threatened by the racial accusations.
I really did want to hear what he had to say about the fallout from Jones' dismissal.
Although Jones won't say her ouster was racially motivated, there is still the perception that the Hispanic voting bloc didn't renew her contract so that they could give the job to a Hispanic.
Arellano comparison wrong
The perception has unleashed a barrage of anti-immigration sentiments, with people calling into talk radio shows and sending e-mails bashing Ramos and other Curie board members.
"I remember the '60s when the black community embraced the Spanish community because the black community 'felt their pain,' " said one reader in an e-mail. "Now the table has turned and only the Mayor and immigration can fix this mess."
Some of this negativity can be traced to the frustration that builds when people can't talk openly about race.
And if Jones were white, there likely wouldn't have been such media scrutiny of her firing since a number of white principals were fired by predominantly black councils at the beginning of school reform.
But the strained interactions between African Americans and Hispanics is an anomaly. Although both groups have been oppressed, they haven't formed a solid coalition based on mutual respect.
For instance, a lot of African Americans were disgusted when Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant, compared her plight to that of blacks during the civil rights movement.
I couldn't blame them.
Although immigration laws should be reformed to allow illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, there's no way back in the day that a sister would have been allowed to hole up in a church for four months when the law was looking for her.
'It wasn't a front-page s'
Then there's the competition for jobs. Although so many blacks have been locked out of the trade unions over the years that the Chicago Urban League now considers it a civil rights issue, Hispanics have had easier access.
Unemployed black workers aren't blind. They see who's on the construction sites. They also understand that while they have been written out of Chicago's economic picture, skilled Hispanic laborers are welcome.
So the longer this Curie matter drags on, the uglier the talk is going to get.
"This has only increased the tensions among African Americans and Hispanics," Avila said.
"I think it's unnecessary. Even if the LSC was wrong in your opinion or in the mayor's opinion, they didn't do anything illegal," Avila said. "It wasn't a front-page story."
A self-described activist, Avila recalled words he attributed to the Rev. Jesse Jackson when Jackson formed his Rainbow Coalition:
"He said blacks and Hispanics should not be fighting for crumbs," Avila told me.
"We're fighting over Curie's principal when there are over-arching issues of education, like school funding. By fighting over one principal, we are taking a small piece of the pie when a huge feast is on the table."
But this isn't about one principal.
The Curie fight over who will be the school's next principal shows how far African Americans and Hispanics have to go.