Blacks, Latinos and the New Civil Rights Movement

“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 withwe 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 soThere is going to be more border security to stop the influx of immigrants from coming in.”

“Let me say at the outset thata 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 Minutemen 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 immigrant rights, 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 affirmatively to the racist HR4437 anti-immigrant bill. When the NAACP finally came out with a statement, at the end of March, in support of the rights of immigrants, they firmly planted themselves on the right wing of the movement by supporting the vague “earned path to legal permanent residency and citizenship for college age students.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH and the Nation of Islam have been the most prominent Black organizations to come out support 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-helping to 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 competitive fear amongst Black politicians that the rising political clout of Latinos could erode into 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. Even the Reverend Jesse 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 he chose to speak at the May Day rally in New York City.

One reason for Rev. Jackson’s absence from the Chicago march may have something to do with House Rep. Luis Gutierrez recently announcement on his intentions to “seriously consider” running for Mayor in 2000. Rev. Jackson’s son, House Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. has hinted for almost a year now of his intentions to run for mayor of Chicago. It may have proven too uncomfortable for Jackson to stand with Rep. Gutierrez, while Gutierrez led 500,000 people in a chant of “today we march, tomorrow we vote.” At Chicago’s historic May Day march not a single Black elected official-alderman or Congressman-spoke at this event. On the other hand three Black Democrats spoke at a Darfur rally happening at the same exact time as the May 1st march separated by five blocks.

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

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 supposed 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.

That’s right displaced. 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, 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 their 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 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, the 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 Kansas. Workers on the move to find work or refuge, because we live in a world of economic and political insecurity, break unjust laws in order to feed their families not to suck off the great benefits and high wages of America.

Thanks to the immigrant rights movement the corporate media and the Black political elite have re-discovered 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. There is unprecedented poverty and unemployment amongst Black men exemplified by the statistic that in 2004, 72 percent of African American men in their twenties 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 has 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 wageworkers-Black, white and Latino-are in competition with each other for jobs. 40 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 never-ending 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 but rather is the story of the formation of the American working class. As Jesse Jackson 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. 19th and early 20th century European immigrant workers were said to undercut “genuine American stock.” African Americans 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 few years ago the University of Chicago conducted a study showing the employers were less likely to call back a job applicant with a “Black sounding name”. Northwestern University released study showing 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 the book, 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 has persisted for Black labor for more than thirty years now. The hey day of Black employment has gone the way of industrial factory work in the inner city-simply gone away. According to an article written by Betsy Leonard-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% to 70% of laid-off workers were African-American in areas where they were only 10% to 12% 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-of those 300,000, were lost by Black workers. 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 American’s precarious work situation. 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,” according to Stephanie Armour writing in USA Today in December 2002. She goes on to say, “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 Americansdepartment 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-1970snearly 2.6 million jobs have disappeared overall during the last 28 months nearly 90 percent of those jobs were in manufacturingwith 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. Black workers in trade unions went from a high of 31 percent in 1983 down to 16 percent in 2004-almost half ­even still Black workers are still more likely to be in a union than white or Latino workers.

Against this backdrop of job loss and unemployment has been the U.S. 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 2002. 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-essentially trapping low wage workers in poverty. Moreover, when we live in a country that spends $1 billion a week to violate the sovereignty of Iraqis 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 one on poverty and unemployment in this country.

It should also go without saying that for Latinos, documented and not-in the words of Langston Hughes–“life ain’t been no crystal stair” either. Blacks and Latinos share in a daily struggle to make the ends meet.

27 percent of Latino children live in poverty, compared to 30 percent of Black children. In 1996, 28% of immigrant Latino families were poor.

27.1% of Latinos live below the poverty line

One-third of Mexican (34%) and Central American (32%) immigrant families live below the poverty line.

In 1968, 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% of Latinos have no health insurance

Latinos comprise 13% of the US population, are 10% of US drug users, yet approximately 22.5% of sentenced State prisoners convicted of a drug offense and 18.6% of American adults in State or Federal prisons and local jails are Latino

These statistics play out differently depending on what ethnic group you are referring to. 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 immigrant workers this will only fan the flames of racism eventually consuming Blacks 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, when stopping brown skinned people for innocuous traffic stops turns 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. Where labor has failed on this question, all workers have suffered. Where 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 undocumented workers. It would immediately end the employer’s ability to pay less than minimum wage to a section of the working class. It would remove the fear from immigrant workers who must constantly look over their shoulder for fear of raids and deportation which would increase the likelihood of organizing them into trade unions. An article in the Los Angeles Times summed up the potential of this kind 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% of Los Angeles janitors, compared with 20% 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% of janitorial jobs, reflecting their presence in the population, Garcia said. The hotel workers union last year negotiated similar guarantees for black workers.

The debate over immigration in this country is racist. Its intention is to demonize Mexicans and other Latinos-for whom the debate is almost exclusively focused on. It is no grand revelation to say that the point of focusing on Latinos by politicians and the media is 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 decline and 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 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 their ordinary Black workers who are afraid of what the future of immigrants in this country will mean fom them? Of course there are, but we have to patiently argue that if the state is allowed to criminalize the undocumented and stygmatize the documented, it will only further division, promote racism and 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.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR writes regularly for the International Socialist Review on issues of race and class. She can be contacted at