Though blacks have long worried that the country’s growing foreign-born population, especially its swelling rolls of illegal immigrants, harmed their economic prospects, they have also followed their political leadership in backing liberal immigration policies. Now, however, as new waves of immigration inundate historically African-American neighborhoods, black opinion is hardening against the influx. “We will not lay down and take this any longer,” says Anderson. If he’s right, it could upend the political calculus on immigration.
Black unease about immigration goes back a long way. In the 1870s, former slave Frederick Douglass warned that immigrants were displacing free blacks in the labor market. Twenty-five years later, Booker T. Washington exhorted America’s industrialists to “cast down your bucket” not among new immigrants but “among the eight million Negros . . . who have without strikes and labor wars tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities.” Blacks supported federal legislation in 1882 that restricted Chinese immigration to the United States. They favored the immigration reform acts of the 1920s, which limited European immigration, and also urged restrictions on Mexican workers: “If the million Mexicans who have entered the country have not displaced Negro workers, whom have they displaced?” asked black journalist George Schuyler in 1928.
But the 1960s brought a big change in the views of black political leaders, especially after President Lyndon B. Johnson and congressional supporters of liberalizing immigration claimed the mantle of the civil rights movement for their reforms, which became law in 1965 and resulted in a 60 percent increase in legal immigration over the subsequent decade. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that blacks and poor immigrants had much in common and could become political allies, which was why, in the run-up to the immigration bill’s passage, he endorsed the idea of letting Cubans fleeing Castro settle in Miami. Jesse Jackson would later herald the imminent arrival of a mighty “black-brown” or “rainbow” coalition that would—or so he claimed—propel him to the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. As it turned out, Jackson failed to win much Hispanic support, which mostly lined up behind Walter Mondale. But Jackson’s dream continued to spread among black politicians, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus, which became one of Washington’s most vocal groups opposing immigration restrictions.
Black leaders’ liberal views clearly helped soften anti-immigration attitudes within the African-American community. A 1986 New York Times poll found that a larger percentage of blacks than of whites believed that immigrants took jobs from Americans—but it also found blacks less likely than whites to favor immigration restrictions. In the California vote on Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that banned government benefits for illegals, blacks split nearly in half on the measure, while whites heavily supported it and Latinos opposed it. “Even confronted with evidence that immigrants are taking jobs from them, some blacks would say, ‘These are people who are fighting for their rights like us,’ ” says Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University political scientist and editor of the recently published Debating Immigration.
But as immigration reignited as a national issue in 2006, ambivalence has increasingly given way to opposition to current policies—and even to anger. When Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a columnist for BlackNews.com, wrote a series of pieces sympathizing with illegal aliens, the volume of hostile mail that poured in from other blacks shocked him. Illegal immigration has sizzled as a topic on African-American stations like satellite radio XM’s “The Power,” with most callers demanding more immigration restrictions. African-American bloggers have excoriated black politicians who favor liberal immigration policies. “In the realm of pandering black elites, there is no more notorious public figure than [Texas] Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee,” wrote Elizabeth Wright in the online newsletter Issues & Views. “According to Jackson-Lee, those blacks who forcefully oppose mass immigration are simply naive and are being ‘baited’ [by white opponents of immigration] into taking such negative positions.”
Recent polling data reveal the shift. Though a 2006 Pew Center national survey showed some of the same ambivalence among blacks toward immigrants, it also found that in several urban areas where blacks and Latinos were living together, blacks were more likely to say that immigrants were taking jobs from Americans, and also more likely to favor cutting America’s current immigration levels.
What’s behind the anger, as the Pew data hint, is the rapid change that legal and illegal Hispanic immigration is bringing to longtime black locales. Places like South Los Angeles and Compton, California, have transformed,
This Latino “tsunami,” as Los Angeles–based Hispanic-American writer Nicolás Vaca calls it, has intensified the well-founded feeling among blacks that they’re losing economic ground to immigrants. True, early research, conducted in the wake of the big immigration reforms of the 1960s, suggested that the arrival of newcomers had little adverse impact on blacks—one study found that every 10 percent increase in immigration cut black wages by only 0.3 percent. But as the immigrant population has in some places grown six or seven times larger over the last four decades, the downward pull has become a vortex. A recent study by Harvard economist George Borjas and colleagues from the University of Chicago and the University of California estimates that immigration accounted for a 7.4 percentage-point decline in the employment rate of unskilled black males between 1980 and 2000. Even for black males with high school diplomas, immigration shrank employment by nearly 3 percentage points. While immigration hurts black and white low-wage workers, the authors note, the effect is three times as large on blacks because immigrants are more likely to compete directly with them for jobs.
A case study of Los Angeles janitorial services cited in a Government Accounting Office report captures the enormity of the shift. It began in the late 1970s, as several small firms began hiring Mexican janitors at low pay, prompting building owners to drop contracts with the companies that employed blacks in favor of the cheaper upstarts. As the immigrant-dominated firms grabbed more business, industry wages slipped from a peak of $6.58 an hour in 1983 to $5.63 an hour in 1985. The number of black janitors in L.A. plummeted from about 2,500 in the late 1970s to only 600 by 1985. Today, the city’s janitorial industry, like apparel manufacturing and hotel services, is almost entirely immigrant.
Former mechanic Anderson felt the effects of low-wage immigrant competition in his old line of work. “I used to sell parts to body shops, and I knew Americans who were making $20 an hour repairing dented fenders,” he says. “Now, 95 percent of South Central L.A. body-shop jobs are held by recent immigrants making $7 or $8 an hour.” Says Joe Hicks, former chair of Los Angeles’s Human Relations Commission and now head of the nonprofit Community Advocates: “It’s hard to find a black face on a construction site or in a fast-food restaurant around here any more. People from the black community have noticed.”
As the Hispanic population has expanded in formerly black areas, Latinos have also vied more intensely with blacks for affirmative-action slots, public-sector jobs, and political power. In one notable late-1990s case that presaged future confrontations, Hispanic leaders in South L.A. launched an official complaint that blacks made up the overwhelming majority of the county hospital’s staff. A federal agency then forced the hospital to hire more Latinos, provoking bitterness among local blacks. More recently, in Compton—where Hispanics have replaced blacks as the largest ethnic group, but where blacks continue to dominate local politics—Latinos have been grumbling that they don’t hold as many jobs in the public schools as they should, given their numbers.
This battle over quotas for public-sector jobs is a glaring example of how immigration is turning the race-based policies of the last 40 years, originally designed to help blacks, against them. For African-American leaders like Claud Anderson, head of the Harvest Institute, the turnabout represents a betrayal of the civil rights movement: only blacks deserve quotas. “When did our government ever exclude immigrants or deny them their constitutional rights, as they did African-Americans?” he asks. But for other blacks, the demands of Latinos and Asians that government set-aside programs include them are further evidence that racial preferences were misguided in the first place. “Blacks who support skin color privileges now will be singing a different tune later once government starts discriminating against them once again, this time in favor of Hispanics,” writes columnist and blogger La Shawn Barber.
The Latino influx into formerly black-majority urban neighborhoods has sparked deadlier kinds of conflict. While most violent crime in these areas is still black-on-black or Latino-on-Latino, interethnic violence is mounting, and in some locales, much of it—perhaps surprisingly, given high overall black crime rates—is Hispanic-on-black. In the heavily mixed-race community of Harbor Gateway in Los Angeles, for example, Latinos now commit five times more violent crimes against blacks than vice versa. Countywide numbers are just as startling. Though blacks make up just 9 percent of L.A. County’s population, they were the victims of 59 percent of all racially motivated attacks in 2006, while Latinos committed 52 percent of all racially motivated attacks.
Gangbanging is responsible for much of the carnage. Greater Los Angeles is now home to some 500 Mexican gangs—compared with some 200 black ones—and they’ve aggressively tried to push blacks out of mixed-race neighborhoods. More than just turf wars, the Latinos’ violence has included attacks against law-abiding African-Americans with no gang involvement; a horrifying example was the December 2006 murder of 14-year-old Cheryl Green by Mexican gang members in Harbor Gateway, a brutal crime designed to terrorize local blacks. Three years earlier, the same gang had killed a black man because he dared to patronize a local store that they considered “For Hispanics Only.” Meantime, federal authorities have indicted members of another Los Angeles–based Latino gang, Florencia 13, for random shootings of blacks in South L.A. The indictment chillingly accuses a gang leader of giving members instructions on how to find blacks to shoot.
“This all began in local high schools back in the early 1990s, but it wasn’t noticed by many people then,” says sociologist Alex Alonso, an expert in Los Angeles gangs. “When blacks and Latinos started sharing high schools, they fought, at first because they refused to celebrate each other’s ethnic holidays. Since then, the fighting has made its way into the streets and the gangs.” Alonso, who runs an online forum where gang members can vent, says that Latino-black relations are one of the hottest topics. Typical is this remark from a forum member: “Black folks in L.A. better wake up and realize that the ‘myth’ of the brown minority brother and sister, being black folks’ latent brothers and sisters in the struggle . . . is a wet dream. If black folks don’t soon realize this in L.A., unite and come together for their own survival—then it will be blacks walking around with their heads up their asses . . . asking: ‘What happened???’ ”
The violent neighborhood confrontations initially received little media attention outside Southern California. But the murder last summer of three black, college-bound students in Newark, New Jersey—allegedly by several illegal Hispanic immigrants, including a Peruvian with a criminal record named Jose Carranza—sparked widespread national coverage and a heated debate within the black community. The Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, a conservative radio host and columnist, called the Newark killings and the California violence “a wake-up call” for blacks. Reflecting the new mood, Terry Anderson, the Los Angeles talk-show host, challenged black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to speak out. “If you make one simple change, and change Jose Carranza to a white man,” said Anderson, “I will guarantee you that [Sharpton and Jackson] would be screaming and marching in the streets.”
Many blacks are also uncomfortable with the more prosaic cultural changes that accompany rapid immigration. Akbar Shabazz, a telecommunications consultant, moved out of Gwinnett County, a middle-class Atlanta suburb with a large African-American population, after a huge influx of foreign-born Spanish speakers suddenly created a bilingual culture in the public schools, as well as such overcrowding that some schools had to hold classes in trailers. Since 1990, Gwinnett’s foreign-born population has increased tenfold, to about 185,000—now making up about 25 percent of the total population. “There were so many students speaking Spanish in my daughter’s kindergarten class that she felt isolated,” says Shabazz, who has joined a group of blacks supporting immigration restrictions.
Some observers, aware of the historical irony, have even begun talking about “black flight” from Latino migration. In Los Angeles, for instance, the black population has declined by some 123,000 in the last 15 years, while the Hispanic population has increased by more than 450,000. “Black communities are being transformed, and it isn’t going down so well,” says Joe Hicks.
Blacks may also be starting to realize that many Latinos hold intensely negative stereotypes about them. In a 2006 study that ten academic researchers conducted of various racial groups’ attitudes in Durham, North Carolina, 59 percent of Latino immigrants said that few or no blacks were hardworking, and 57 percent said that few or no blacks could be trusted. By contrast, only 9 percent of whites said that blacks weren’t hardworking, and only 10 percent said that they couldn’t be trusted. Interestingly, the survey found that blacks were broadly well-disposed toward Hispanics, though how long that will be true remains to be seen.
The rising tensions between African-Americans and Hispanics render the old hopes of a black-brown coalition chimerical. “In studies,” says Frank Morris, former dean of graduate studies at Morgan State University, “immigrants actually tend to say they think of themselves more like whites in America than like blacks, which is one reason why a black-brown political coalition has never existed anywhere except in the minds of black political leaders.” Morris, the former head of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, says that elected black leaders have sought to join forces with Hispanics not out of true common concerns but out of fear that demographic changes will leave them vulnerable to challenges from Latino pols. A research paper published by Morris and University of Maryland professor James Gimpel estimates that Hispanic candidates could win as many as six seats that blacks currently hold in the U.S. House of Representatives. Latino politicians understand that their own gains will come largely at the expense of black candidates. When black California congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald died suddenly last year, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus targeted her seat, realizing that her district was 57 percent Latino. The effort, which angered members of the Congressional Black Caucus, failed. But Hispanic congressman Joe Baca justified it: “It’s time we have one of our own that speaks on our behalf,” he said.
Nicolás Vaca, the writer, dismisses the notion that African-Americans and Latinos are natural allies. “A divide exists between Blacks and Latinos that no amount of camouflage can hide,” he writes in his book The Presumed Alliance. Vaca says that the split has been evident for years, though largely ignored by the media and political leaders. He contends, for instance, that the 1992 Los Angeles riots, sparked by the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King, became on the ground a black-brown confrontation in which the majority of businesses destroyed were Latino. At the same time, Vaca argues, Latinos believe that, since they had nothing to do with black oppression in America, they owe blacks nothing and “come to the table with a clear conscience.”
Such talk portends problems for the Democratic Party, where Hispanics and African-Americans are two crucial constituencies. Courting the growing Hispanic vote, virtually all the top Democratic leaders in Washington support liberal immigration policies, including some form of amnesty. So far, the party has been able to embrace amnesty without threatening its traditional lock on black votes. Republicans are missing an opportunity, thinks Vanderbilt’s Swain. “Some Republicans have positions on immigration that would resonate in the black community, but only a few have tried to take advantage of black anger on immigration,” she says.
For Swain, white members of Congress who favor restrictions on low-wage immigration may be representing black interests better than the Congressional Black Caucus does. Many blacks, she believes, now recognize that former political allies like the Democratic Party, white liberals, and unions have abandoned them in favor of immigrants, who represent the newest Left cause—and that the black political leadership isn’t doing anything about it.
Black politicians, noticing the growing anger within their communities, have started to shun the immigration debate. Major civil rights organizations didn’t participate in the Latino marches and protests in favor of amnesty last spring. At the Congressional Black Caucus’s annual legislative conference last September, no sessions tackled immigration, despite the issue’s national prominence. And when Sheila Jackson-Lee proposed her liberal immigration-reform bill in 2006, only nine of the CBC’s 43 members cosponsored it.
Black politicians would influence the direction of future immigration debates merely by sitting them out. Back in
Blacks could play a far more decisive role, though, if their political leaders felt threatened enough to pursue tougher immigration policies actively. Such a move wouldn’t be unprecedented. In the late 1980s, blacks reacted bitterly when Congress proposed an amnesty for illegals. The pressure that they put on black representatives prompted the Congressional Black Caucus to ensure that the immigration bill that eventually passed included tough sanctions against employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers, though court challenges eventually watered them down. Today, black America appears to be in the throes of a more profound shift in attitudes—one that could make the African-American voter a crucial part of the immigration debate.