International Socialist Review - online edition

Back to home page

ISR Issue 48, July–August 2006

"Life ain't been no crystal stair"

Blacks, Latinos and immigrant civil rights


Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a regulara contributor to the ISR, is author of "Rediscovering race and class after Katrina," ISR 44 (November-December 2005). She is a member of the International Socialist Organization.

"We have a huge problem. This immigration problem is a crisis and we can't get around it anymore. It has got to be dealt with…we have not done what we should have done to secure the borders. We have the resources to secure the border if we really have the will to do so.… There is going to be more border security to stop the influx of immigrants from coming in."

"Let me say at the outset that…a strong border security policy is an absolute necessity for this nation."

"They [immigrants] have to acknowledge that breaking our immigration laws was wrong. They must pay a penalty and abide by all of our laws going forward."

WHO MADE these comments? Was it a right-wing Republican congressman? Was it a hate-monger from the racist Minuteman Project? No, these statements came from the liberal darlings of the Democratic Party-Maxine Waters, John Conyers, and Barack Obama, respectively-during various interviews on how to deal with the so-called immigration "problem." In fact, these comments reflect what has been a generally cool reception to this new civil rights movement for immigrants by the old guard of the last civil rights movement for African Americans.

From the NAACP to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)-the self-anointed "conscience of the Congress"-a number of Black political leaders have been notably lukewarm to the new movement. In fact, Black Democrat and CBC member Harold Ford of Tennessee actually voted for the racist HR4437 that would make felons of the undocumented and anyone who assists them. When, at the end of March, the NAACP finally came out with a statement in support of the rights of immigrants, it firmly planted itself on the right wing of the movement by supporting the vague "earned path to legal permanent residency and citizenship for college-age students."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH and the Nation of Islam (NOI) have been the most prominent Black organizations to come out in support of the new movement. At the Chicago May Day march, the NOI had three speakers, all of whom expressed the need for solidarity between Blacks and Latinos.

What, however, is behind the Black Democrats' tepid response to the new movement? There are three explanations.

First, the Democratic Party as a whole has radically shifted to the right over the last twenty years. In a move toward "electability," the Democrats have pandered and acquiesced to the Right-all the while abandoning their base-on the key political and social issues of the day: abortion, the death penalty and the criminal justice system, gay marriage, health care and education, and now immigrant rights.

Black Democrats are no different. Moreover, they have an additional role to play. They help patch up the reputation of the party in the Black community and within the broad Left when the Democrats line up with Republicans on important political issues.

Second, a number of Black elected officials feel politically threatened by the rising number of Latinos moving into their districts. As Latinos have displaced African Americans as the largest racial minority in the United States, there is a fear amongst Black politicians that the rising political clout of Latinos could erode their electoral base of support.

A prime example of this is being played out in Chicago where Black Democrats have been visibly absent from the historic marches of up to one million people in the last months. Jackson has been noticeably absent from the two Chicago marches even though he lives fewer than five miles from where the marches have wound through the downtown streets. Instead, Jackson chose to speak at the May Day rally in New York City.

One reason for Jackson's absence from the Chicago march may have been representative Luis Gutierrez's recent announcement that he intends to "seriously consider" running for mayor in 2007. Rev. Jackson's son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., has hinted for almost a year of his intentions to run for mayor of Chicago. It may have proven too uncomfortable for Jackson to stand with Gutierrez, while Gutierrez led a predominantly Latino crowd of 500,000 in a chant of "today we march, tomorrow we vote."

There is, however, another side to the Black Democrats' conservative approach to the immigration question. Many Black elected officials are tailing the genuine anxiety that a number of ordinary Blacks have expressed about low wages and job losses they attribute to the presence of undocumented workers.

There is a reality that the poorest Blacks and the undocumented compete for low-wage jobs. In fact, there is a conscious attempt to pit Black and Latino workers against each other. Many of the jobs that are synonymous with immigrants today-the jobs that Americans "are too good for"-used to be filled by African Americans. The displacement of Black workers is a real problem-but not a problem caused by displaced Mexican workers.

When the U.S. destroys economies abroad through war-read El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala-or through allowing American corporations to roam free in search of cheap labor-read Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, in fact the entire South American continent and the Caribbean-depressing wages, sinking living standards, and spreading poverty like wildfire, it is the apex of hypocrisy for anyone in this country to then deny the right of any immigrant to come to this country to try and find work and take care of his or her family.

It is as hypocritical, then, for the United States to complain about the laws of its country being broken. Leaving aside the fact that the U.S. makes a habit out of breaking the laws of countries around the world-from launching illegal wars to torturing prisoners of war-unjust laws should be broken.

Throughout the history of this country, immigrants, Blacks, workers, and women have had to break the law in the name of justice. Barack Obama forgets, when he chides immigrants who break our nations' laws, that his own father, a Kenyan sheep herder who married a white woman, would have been breaking the law if he'd tried to wed his wife in the former Confederacy instead of in Kansas. Because we live in a world of economic and political insecurity, workers on the move to find work or refuge break hypocritical laws that limit their ability to feed their families. Immigrants come to the U.S. to work because work has been decimated in their own countries caused directly by American economic and political interference. They are not coming to this country to suck off the great benefits and high wages-an extreme delusion that inhabits the cavernous minds of the racist right wing.

Rediscovering the Black poor and unemployed

Thanks to the immigrant rights movement, the corporate media and the Black political elite have rediscovered the Black unemployed-just in time to blame Mexican immigrants for it. After spending the better part of the last decade enumerating the supposed pathologies of Black behavior as the culprit for persistent Black poverty and social crisis, the Democrats and the media have pointed the finger at Mexican immigrants.

As this new movement was unfolding, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the worsening plight of Black men in the United States. Black men are experiencing unprecedented poverty and unemployment. In 2004, 72 percent of African American men aged 20-29 who had dropped out of high school were unemployed. Several media outlets have run dozens of stories on the "suspicion" with which African Americans are supposed to be regarding the new movement for immigrant rights.

The media have embellished the idea that Blacks are opposed to immigrant rights, exemplified by major newspapers in both Los Angeles and Chicago focusing on the miniscule handful of Blacks working with the racist Minutemen.

In fact, in a recently published poll from California-a state in the heart of the immigration debate-a whopping 82 percent of Blacks support offering the undocumented an opportunity to become citizens. A Pew poll found that more than 50 percent of Blacks view immigrants as "hard working," but the same Pew poll found that one-third of Black workers thought immigrants take jobs from Americans.

There is a reality that all low-wage workers-Black, white, and Latino-are in competition with each other for jobs. Forty percent of African-American workers are stuck in low wage, service sector jobs. These are also the jobs that employers are most likely to seek out undocumented workers to fill. This isn't the fault of the undocumented; this is the reality of the capitalist economy.

Employers are in a neverending pursuit of lower wages. The deliberate solicitation and employment of undocumented labor is an effort to push wages as far down as they can get away with while also fostering animosity and antagonism between Black and Mexican workers, native and foreign-born workers. This isn't new. Rather it is the story of the formation of the American working class. As Jackson Sr. put it in a recent article on the issue of immigration:

Ironically each new group is said to "undermine the standard of living" of the poorest groupings that preceded it, the better to keep us divided and powerless. Nineteenth and early twentieth century European immigrant workers were said to undercut "genuine American stock." African American migrants from the South were cursed as scabs on the "white worker." Asians were denounced as a yellow horde that threatened American civilization. And now Mexican and other undocumented immigrants are said to threaten African Americans and other poor people, not to speak of the entire "American way of life."

The focus on undocumented immigrants as the source of Black unemployment and Black poverty is a diversion and distraction of gigantic proportions. The main impediments to progress for Black workers in this country remain racial discrimination in hiring and firing, the "restructuring" in manufacturing in the American economy, the decline of trade union jobs, the diminished remnants of the American welfare state and a minimum wage that locks workers into poverty permanently.

A University of Chicago study conducted in the 1990s showed that employers were less likely to call back a job applicant with a "Black-sounding name." A Northwestern University study indicated that employers were more likely to call back a white male applicant with a criminal record than a Black male applicant with no criminal record. In a survey of employers compiled for Philip I. Moss's Stories Employers Tell, 46 percent of employers viewed the skill level of Blacks and Latinos negatively, based, in part, on racial stereotypes.

Racism, job loss, and underemployment have persisted for Black labor for decades. The heyday of Black employment has gone the way of industrial factory work in the inner city-away. According to an article in Dollars and Sense by Betsy Leondar-Wright called "Black job loss déjà vu,"

The term "deindustrialization" came into everyday use in the 1970s, when a wave of plant closings changed the employment landscape. From 1966 to 1973, corporations moved over a million American jobs to other countries. Even more jobs moved from the Northeast and Midwest to the South, where unions were scarce and wages lower. New York City alone lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs in the 1960s. As today, the workers laid off in the 1960s and '70s were disproportionately African-American. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that during the recession of 1973 to 1974, 60 percent to 70 percent of laid-off workers were African American in areas where they were only 10 percent to 12 percent of the workforce. In five cities in the Great Lakes region, the majority of Black men employed in manufacturing lost their jobs between 1979 and 1984. A major reason was seniority; white workers had been in their jobs longer, and so were more likely to keep them during cutbacks.

Nor is this only a historical explanation for Black job loss and unemployment. It is a phenomenon that continues to this day. When the recession of 2001 hit, manufacturing lost 2.1 million jobs. Black workers lost 300,000 of those jobs. Black labor's concentration in the hard-hit manufacturing sector combined with racist hiring and firing practices has had much more to do with African Americans' precarious work situation than immigration has. In 1979 Blacks made up 24 percent of manufacturing workers, by 2004 this number had shrunk to 10 percent.

"African Americans tend to be the last to be hired when the economy is booming. That means that they also tend to be the first to lose their jobs when a downturn hits," wrote Stephanie Armour in USA Today in December 2002. She went on to say that, "job losses have been deep in manufacturing and construction, they have also hit retailers, which lost 39,000 jobs in November. Jobs in those industries tend to be disproportionately held by African Americans…department store hiring was down by 17,000, the worst November for store hiring since 1982."

In July 2003, the New York Times reported:

Unemployment among Blacks is rising at a faster pace than in any similar period since the mid-1970s…nearly 2.6 million jobs have disappeared overall during the last 28 months.… Nearly 90 percent of those jobs were in manufacturing…with Blacks hit disproportionately harder than whites.

This economic picture combined with the shrinking number of Black workers with trade union jobs has contributed to the economic and social crisis in Black America. In 1983, 31 percent of Black workers belonged to trade unions. By 2004, that number had fallen to 16 percent. Still, Black workers are more likely to be in a union than white or Latino workers.

Against this backdrop of job loss and unemployment has been the relentless attack on the social safety net. In 2002 the federal government cut funding for job training from $245 million down to $45 million. In 1996, President Bill Clinton ended welfare as an entitlement for the poor-including poor workers. This horrible legislation included cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies. For those who have argued that immigrants are taking resources from poor citizens, they should instead point the finger at scapegoating politicians who used anti-Black racism to push the punitive welfare reform legislation ten years ago.

They should also point the finger at a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour that has not been raised in eight years, trapping low-wage workers in poverty. Moreover, when we live in a country that spends $1 billion a week to violate the sovereignty of Iraq's borders, the idea that there is not enough money to go around for all is a joke. We shouldn't be quibbling over pennies with undocumented workers, we should be demanding an end to the war in Iraq and declaring a new war on poverty and unemployment in this country.

Black and Brown unite: Same struggle, same fight

It should also go without saying that for Latinos, documented and not, "life ain't been no crystal stair" either, as the words of Langston Hughes remind us. Blacks and Latinos share in a daily struggle to make ends meet.

  • 27 percent of Latino children live in poverty, compared to 30 percent of Black children. In 1996, 28 percent of immigrant Latino families were poor.
  • 27.1 percent of Latinos live below the poverty line
  • One-third of Mexican (34 percent) and Central American (32 percent) immigrant families live below the poverty line.
  • In1968, 23.1 percent of Latino students attended schools with a minority enrollment of 90 percent to 100 percent. In 1998, that number rose to 36.6 percent of Latino students.
  • 40 percent of all high school dropouts are Latino.
  • The highest attempted suicide rate in the U.S. is among Latino youth.
  • 34.2 percent of Latinos have no health insurance
  • Latinos comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, are 10 percent of U.S. drug users, yet approximately 22.5 percent of sentenced state
  • prisoners convicted of a drug offense and 18.6 percent of American adults in state or federal prisons and local jails are Latino

These statistics play out differently according to Latino ethnic group. The poorest Latinos in the United States are Puerto Ricans, who are, of course, American citizens. But immigrants of Mexican and Central American descent also suffer from disproportionately high poverty rates.

African Americans have a stake in the success of the movement for immigrant rights. If the reactionary legislation that is on offer actually passes and becomes law, it will enshrine a two- or three-tier wage system that will only further perpetuate the race to the bottom for American workers. Moreover, if the state is allowed to criminalize the existence of immigrant workers, this will only fan the flames of racism. Eventually Blacks will be consumed in a back draft of discrimination. How exactly does one tell the difference between a citizen and a non-citizen? Through a massive campaign of racial profiling, that's how. The police are already using racial profiling skills they perfected with African Americans. Stopping brown- skinned people for innocuous traffic stops can easily turn into a discussion about papers and citizenship.

In fact, the entire working class has a stake in the success of this movement. When labor in the past has been faced with the question of immigrant labor being used to drive down wages, there are really only two responses-giving into racist xenophobia or embracing, as brothers and sisters, immigrant workers into the struggle for workers' rights. When labor has failed on this question, all workers have suffered. When labor has taken up the fight of immigrant workers and welcomed them into its ranks, all of labor has progressed-in terms of wages, rights, and political consciousness.

All workers should support unequivocal amnesty for the undocumented. It would immediately end the employers' ability to pay less than a minimum wage to a section of the working class. It would remove the fear and intimidation of immigrant workers who must constantly look over their shoulder for fear of raids and deportation. This would increase the likelihood of organizing them into trade unions. A recent Los Angeles Times report summed up the potential of this kind of collaboration and solidarity within the labor movement:

The Service Employees International Union, which represents 1.8 million service workers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, has been highly successful in reorganizing janitors around the nation. In Los Angeles, for instance, most janitors were unionized African Americans making middle-class wages until the mid-1980s, according to Mike Garcia, president of the SEIU's Local 1877, which covers California. But building owners and labor contractors broke the unions, replaced Black janitors with largely undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America and drove wages down to the bare minimum with no benefits, he said. In 1987, the union launched a "Justice for Janitors" campaign to reorganize the workers. After nearly two decades of aggressive tactics, the union represents 85 percent of Los Angeles janitors, compared with 20 percent when the campaign began, Garcia says. Union jobs pay $11 an hour with fully paid benefits, compared with $8 an hour before the union's strike in 2000, he says. "Once you reorganize, wages rise for everybody: the documented and undocumented, native-born and immigrant," said Eliseo Medina, SEIU executive vice president. Garcia said now that the union has negotiated higher wages, its largely Latino members are planning to seek contractual language guaranteeing African Americans at least 12 percent of janitorial jobs, reflecting their presence in the population, Garcia said. The hotel workers' union last year negotiated similar guarantees for black workers.

Building a new movement

The debate over immigration in this country is racist. Its intention is to demonize Mexicans and other Latinos, about whom the debate is almost exclusively focused. It is no great revelation to say that politicians and the media focus on undocumented Latinos to avoid the real debates about what is happening to this country. The fact that Black elected officials and much of the Black Left have either been on the sidelines or passively in support of this movement only points to their further political degeneration.

Instead of talking about how to organize and fight for better jobs and higher wages, we are marooned in a surreal discussion about how the worst jobs with the lowest wages are "Black jobs" and we are mad at Mexican immigrants for "stealing them." Instead of embracing the movement and organizing and mobilizing the Black community to participate in the demonstrations that have brought literally millions of people onto the streets, Black leaders sit jealously on the sidelines nitpicking and haggling over whether or not immigrants should refer to the new struggle as a civil rights movement. Are there ordinary Black workers who are afraid of what the future of immigrants in this country will mean for them? Of course there are, but we have to patiently argue that if the state is allowed to criminalize the undocumented and stigmatize the documented, it will only increase division and promote racism. It would be a huge step backward.

The new movement for immigrant rights is the most exciting development in the struggle for social justice and workers' rights in a generation. It should be embraced, studied, and generalized to a whole number of social and economic ills afflicting this society. Imagine a new movement against racism, against poverty, against the war. The most dispossessed of our society are showing us all that, not only is it possible, but it really is the only way forward from here.