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African-Americans, Economic Well-Being, and Immigration

by Chaka A. K. Uzondu Sunday, Apr. 30, 2006 at 8:24 PM

...while the concern for African-American well-being is well placed, the source of the problem is not always correctly located...

"IMMIGRATION HARMS BLACK AMERICA," was the name of a document that recently found its way into my email box. The fundamental issue that this document raised was that immigration posed a threat to the economic well-being of African-Americans. It is a concern that reverberates in African-American communities. Yet, while the concern for African-American well-being is well placed, the source of the problem is not always correctly located.

African-Americans, as a group, continue to bear the brunt of living in a white-supremacist society whose capitalist economy has been exceptionally good at increasing inequality and keeping a disproportionate number of African-Americans in poverty. Presently, the US is the third most unequal industrialized society in the world.

If you are African-American, the enormous wealth gap that exists on average between you and your fellow white citizens, is reason enough to be concerned with your economic well-being. The racial wealth gap between whites and Blacks, measured by net worth, is about 6,000. This wealth gap has nothing to do with right wing babble about “culture of poverty” and other such folly.

The racial wealth gap has everything to do with the numerous social policies that have created wealth for whites, while simultaneously blocking wealth creation for African-Americans and other racialized peoples. The policies of the Federal Housing Administration, that provided 0 billion in loans for home ownership between 1934 and 1968, of which 98 percent went to whites, is a good example.

The African-American community also continues to experience the highest levels of unemployment of any group in the country. The official figure is said to be about 9%, but most of us know that this figure is flawed because it excludes those incarcerated and those who have stopped seeking work. Racial discrimination in hiring continues to plague African-Americans. A recent study found that a white man with a criminal record could find employment more easily than an African-American who has no criminal record.

When one takes these things into consideration, one can easily grasp why African-Americans are extremely concerned about the implications of immigration for the economic health of their communities.

Historically, immigration has had negative implications for African-Americans. For example, the influx of immigrants has often served as disincentives for employers to reduce discrimination against African-Americans.

The debate in African-American communities about immigration is also tied to racial/ethic tensions between them and immigrants. Most immigrants, including racialized immigrants (even Africans from the continent and the Diaspora), come to know African-Americans often through the lens of white supremacy. We are all bombarded with the negative stereotypes about African-Americans that abound in commercial pop culture. Therefore, we often relate to African-Americans in negative ways. In fact, many immigrants are often encouraged not to identify with African-Americans. As Toni Morrison puts it, immigrants all learn “negative appraisals of the native-born black populations” in the bid to become “American.”

Further, immigrants often do not recognize that whatever opportunities we get are largely possible due to the struggles for racial-social justice that African-Americans waged and continue to wage. Immigrants often fail to realize that African-Americans built the rungs on the ladder to success, which we seek to climb. By no means are African-Americans perfect, for they too have their biases. Yet, for the possibilities that racialized peoples now find available, be they immigrants or not, we owe a debt to African-Americans.

Still, African-Americans have an interest in defending the rights of immigrants.

First, it is consistent with the Black Freedom Movement. That long and ongoing struggle for justice and a non-racial democracy that has been waged by the first Africans brought here against their will, embodied in the life work of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, continues to the present.

Second, immigration is not the cause of the economic problems confronting African-Americans. Critically, the challenges that African-Americans face emerge primarily from the combined forces of white supremacy and this capitalist economy, which privileges the interest of corporations and the super-rich over all people.

For example, immigrants do not cause the high levels of unemployment and underemployment in African-American communities. Latina/o immigrants are not major employers, so even if they practice exclusionary “ethnic hiring,” they are seldom capable of hiring large numbers of African-Americans. Rather, it is the owners of corporations who decide to hire workers who are easier to exploit because being “undocumented” often means being more vulnerable. Major business owners also prefer hiring immigrants to African-Americans because anti-black racism remains endemic, and African-Americans are the groups most likely to join unions to defend their rights as workers.

Further, Latino immigrants did not create the impoverishment of African-American communities. Rather, it is a result of (1) ongoing racial discrimination; (2) the massive deindustrialization of the U.S. since the 70s; (3) systematic disinvestment from urban areas; (4) white flight and its attendant destruction of the urban tax base, and the re-location of jobs to mainly white suburbs; (5) gentrification; and (6) corporate outsourcing of U.S. jobs in their quest for more profits.

Of course, there is competition between African-Americans and Latino workers for certain jobs. Yet, is it better to fight over jobs that are underpaid while CEO’s are extraordinarily overpaid? According to USA Today, CEO’s running the biggest 100 companies in the U.S., receive median pay of about .9 million dollars. Can supporting anti-people, pro-corporate polices peddled by the right wing, improve the economic realities of African-Americans or anyone else for that matter? Can supporting explicit white supremacist policies that criminalize immigrants benefit African-Americans, who remain under siege by the criminal injustice system?

Certainly, it is in the interest of African-Americans and the majority of people for immigrant workers to have greater security. Certainly, African-Americans, immigrants and all workers gain from policies that guarantee living wages to all workers, that strengthen the rights of workers to unionize, and that ensure meaningful employment opportunities for all.

The pro-immigrant marches and the multiracial support they have received demonstrate that there exists an opportunity for a powerful alliance between African-Americans and immigrants. Not only because African-Americans have always been at the forefront of struggles for positive social transformation, but also because African-Americans, immigrants, and everyone else share an interest in creating a more just society. Importantly, the central issue for such an alliance should be racial economic justice. Focusing on racial economic justice would benefit other racialized groups and would include defending the rights of immigrants. It would also go to the heart of U.S. economic inequality.

Therefore, it is critical that African-Americans support immigrants and build a Black/Brown led, cross-racial movement against white supremacy and economic inequality. The widespread demonstrations across the country make plain the emerging opportunities for patriots to positively transform this country in fulfillment of its promise to the world. History shows that African-Americans have always honored that responsibility. They have always led the struggle for full equality. Why should this moment be any different?

Chaka A. K. Uzondu is an Education Coordinator for the Racial Wealth Divide Project at United for a Fair Economy. Email Chaka at

Chaka's most recent articles can be read at

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