by Andre Banks, ColorLines
In the 1920s my great-grandmother Isabella migrated with her parents to
Cleveland, Ohio seeking a more prosperous life. At an early age she went to
work at her family's store, a smoke shop and grocers, to support her parents
and brothers during the Depression. As a young woman, she spent her days
scrubbing the cold floors of Cleveland's elite. By night she felt the heat
of the press as she laid creases in their tailored shirts and expensive
dresses. Isabella worked hard to do the jobs that others would not - the
jobs that built America.
Her story represents that of millions of people in the U.S., but don't be
fooled; it is no immigrant narrative. Isabella was black, like me, and her
story, rendered invisible by the current deliberation on immigrant civil
rights, is that of many Black Americans.
There is little question that the current immigration debate, though coded
and contrived otherwise, is entirely about race. Yet, the framing made
popular by immigrants and their advocates is so hostile to Black people and
our American experience that it seems impossible for us to stake a claim
with this movement. Today's immigrants will find that without Blacks, and a
commitment to challenge racism beyond the reach of immigration policy alone,
their movement will lose both its moral authority and the practical victory
it hopes to achieve.
The language of today's movement directly evokes a painful history.
Immigrants who laid claim in the past to this re-imagined American dream
colluded with a system of racism that made the hope of health, safety and
happiness an empty promise for Black people. Immigrants on the march today
threaten to go the way of the Irish, the Italian and the Jewish: they may
pay the price of the ticket for American citizenship by yielding to a racial
hierarchy that leaves Blacks at the bottom.
Immigrants and their advocates have gained attention by evoking the
narrative of hard-working immigrants making good in the land of opportunity
- the American Dream redux - with its attendant contradictions and
contrivances. With cries that "immigrants built this country," a favorite
calling card, this burgeoning movement at once revoked the history of slaves
and their descendants and obscured important truths about power, migration
and social mobility in this country. For my great-grandmother, and
generations of Black people in this country before and after her, this lie
is worse than silence. It is a critical and strategic omission that adds
Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans to the annals of American history
while relegating Black people to its shadows.
The narrative of the immigrant as the symbol of hard work that leads to
opportunity can mean nothing but alienation for Black people precisely
because we know this myth is false. Without our labor - not immigrant labor,
but slave labor - in the fields and on the march there would be no market
brimming with wealth and economic opportunity, nor a tradition of civil and
political rights readily available for appropriation and exploitation.
So, listening to the language of immigrant rights in 2006, a sensible Black
person might respond with ambivalence. It is difficult to take the cause
seriously, much less call it our own. Immigrant rights advocates have the
potential to speak broadly, and Black people more than any other group might
champion an extension of human rights denied to those on the margins. But
instead we are displaced from this movement by coded messages that celebrate
a history of anti-black racism. That rhetoric, joined with an under
appreciated economic conflict, has generated serious alarm in Black
communities that headlines of 'Black/Brown Conflict' have largely missed or
Immigration policy has routinely been used to check the mobility of Black
people, blocking access to jobs, education and political rights. Whether
European immigrants pulled into the economy during the industrial expansion
of the early last century, or Asian professionals arriving in the 1970s and
1980s positioned as "model minorities," immigration policy has been crafted
to subtly recast and reinforce this country's racial hierarchy. Immigration
regulations, like all public policy, set the rules of the game and can
predetermine its winners and losers; history has shown through centuries of
migration that those rules have worked against working-class Black people.
As we struggle for basic rights, every new immigrant group has moved faster
and further up the ladder.
But the squeeze Black people articulate in response to the arrival of new
immigrants goes beyond laws and regulations. While there is some dispute on
how immigration impacts low-wage labor markets where Blacks are
disproportionately represented, there is evidence that social and kinship
networks in other communities of color directly block Blacks from jobs.
Equal opportunity lawsuits are increasingly being brought against employers
who "prefer" Latinos to Black workers, giving even more reason to take
questions of immigration and racism between communities of color seriously.
The result of innocent intentions, like hiring friends and family into much
needed jobs, is an insidious form of racism that lurks beneath the current
anger and frustration voiced by Black people across the country.
Clearly, there are plenty of reasons for Black people to be skeptical about
U.S. immigration policy. The rhetoric of the movement has refused to
acknowledge racism in the U.S. beyond a narrow agenda of legalization and
vague "worker rights."
The truth is, however, that Black people have been disproportionately
supportive of virtually every other movement for human rights at home and
abroad. Time and history have shown that the descendents of U.S. slavery do
not support violence, oppression or the denial of rights to marginalized
groups, least of all people of color. When the nation as a whole is swept up
in red baiting, war-mongering and a "with us or against us" war on terror,
Blacks overwhelmingLY support civil rights and sovereignty.
Yet our support for immigrant rights remains a murmur of uninspired,
politically-corrected muddled statements of "unity," while the rising tide
of Black popular opinion is at least seriously concerned about, and at worst
flatly opposed to, the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants.
But times change. If immigrants, from Latin America and elsewhere, want to
win something more than the right to a poverty wage job without health care,
it's time for them to craft an immigrant rights movement with language and a
vision that Black people have a stake in. Incorporating Black folks is not
only a moral question; it's really quite practical. New immigrants of color,
unlike their European predecessors, should recognize that in passively
accepting anti-Black racism in exchange for integration into U.S. culture
and economy, they might issue a warrant for the future seizure of their own
Mexicans, Salvadorans and Dominicans are not Irish, Italian and German.
Racism, in its subtle sweep, touches every community of color. While it is
true that Black people often end up at the bottom, other people of color,
despite the comfort of an idealized immigrant narration, are nowhere near
When my great-grandmother was my age in 1937, this country looked very
different. Today, Black people are working harder than ever for less than
ever. Working-class Black communities have been wounded by the decline of
the American city and leveled by the gentrification of their resurgence. We
share these urban landscapes with immigrant families, some here for
generations others arriving daily. Our jobs, our schools, our hospitals,
indeed, our lives overlap in a complex web of political, personal and
economic relationships. We don't always see our fates as linked, but there
is no question that we could. That would require non-immigrants and
immigrants alike to look critically at our lived experiences, to think
beyond our individual needs and envision the true dismantling of racism that
blocks opportunity for us all. Black people are being called on to take that
broader view, but it seems unlikely we will add our numbers to a movement
that appears to forget our history and seems disinterested in our future.
Perhaps Black people and immigrants should be allies in demanding jobs that
we can live on, a health system that cares whether we live or die, and
schools that can prepare our kids to take their place as full citizens. It
is becoming clear that if immigrant rights advocates do not commit
themselves to a broad program of racial justice that includes both
legalization and a wider set of structural changes, they won't expand the
piece of the American pie we share, they'll simply have to fight us for the
biggest part of a very small slice.
Andre Banks is the Associate Director of Media and Public Affairs at the
Applied Research Center and the Associate Publisher of ColorLines magazine.