Fight for the bottom

African-Americans find themselves joining whites against illegal immigration

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 02/09/2006

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Recently, near the close of a spirited community forum on black and Latino relations in South Los Angeles, a young black man in the audience stood up and proudly, even defiantly, shouted that he was a member of the Minuteman Project. This is the fringe group that has waged a noisy, gun-toting and headline-grabbing campaign to shut down the Mexican border to illegal immigrants.

Conservatives and immigration reformers denounce their borderline-racist rants. But the group's rhetoric didn't faze the young man, nor did it seem to impact many other blacks in the audience who nodded in agreement as he launched into a finger-pointing tirade against illegal immigrants whom he claimed "steal jobs from blacks." He punctuated his tirade by loudly announcing that he had taken part in a Minuteman border patrol back in April.

Illegal immigration clearly touched a raw nerve with many blacks in the audience. Nationally, some blacks are unabashed in fingering illegal immigrants (mostly Mexicans, although many are from Canada, Europe and Asia) for the poverty and job dislocation in black communities.

Illegal immigration has also touched a national nerve. According to a Pew Research Center survey in November, more than half of Americans believe that illegal immigration should be a top national policy priority.

The first big warning sign of black frustration with illegal immigration came during 1994's battle over Proposition 187 in California. Whites voted by large margins for the proposition, which denied public services to undocumented immigrants. But nearly 50 percent of blacks also backed the measure.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson shamelessly pandered to anti-immigrant hysteria and he rode it to a re-election victory. Wilson also got nearly 20 percent of the black vote that election (double what Republicans in California typically get from blacks).

Blacks have also given substantial support to anti-bilingual ballot measures in California.

Though there is furious dispute over the economic impact of the estimated 11 million illegal US immigrants on the job market, there is no concrete evidence that employers hire Latinos - and exclude blacks - for low-end jobs solely because of their race.

The sea of state and federal anti-discrimination laws and labor code sections explicitly ban employment discrimination.

Despite a recent flurry of lawsuits by blacks against major employers for alleged racial favoritism toward Hispanic workers, companies vehemently deny that they shun blacks, maintaining that blacks just don't apply for these jobs.

These aren't just flimsy excuses for discrimination. Many blacks will no longer work the menial, low-skilled factory, restaurant and custodial jobs that they filled in decades past. The pay is too low, the work too hard and the indignities too great. On the other hand, blacks that seek these jobs are often given a quick brush-off by employers. The subtle message is that blacks won't be hired, even if they do apply.

An entire category of jobs at the bottom rung of American industry seems to have been marked "Latino only," further deepening suspicion and resentment among poor blacks that illegal immigration is to blame for their economic misery.

The anti-immigrant sentiment among blacks is not new. A century ago, immigration was a hot-button issue among black leaders. Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois railed against Eastern European immigrants that crowded Northern cities. They claimed the new immigrants elbowed blacks out of bottom-rung manufacturing jobs.

At times, these leaders, otherwise progressive fighters for civil rights, sounded every bit as hard-line as America's most rabid anti-immigration foes in demanding that the federal government clamp down on immigration.

But then and now, illegal immigration isn't the prime reason that many poor young blacks are on the streets, and why some have turned to gangs, guns and drug dealing to get ahead. A shrinking economy, failing public schools, savage government cuts to job-training programs, a soaring prison population and employment discrimination are still the major reasons for the poverty and grim employment prospects in inner-city black neighborhoods.

Civil rights leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus have repeatedly condemned the thinly disguised, race-tinged appeals of the Minuteman Project, Save Our State and the legions of other anti-immigration fringe groups that have cropped up in nearly every part of the country in recent months. Some openly pitch their anti-immigrant lines to blacks.

As the immigration debate heats up in Congress and the states, and with so many young people unemployed (with prison cells staring them in the face), more blacks may find it hard to resist the temptation to join the shout to close down the border.


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