Friday, March 28, 2008

In Search of Black Leadership

In Search of Black Leadership

On Black Leadership, Black Politics, and the U.S. Immigration Debate

Mark Sawyer

SOULS [journal] 10 (1): 42-49, 2008 / Copyright # 2008 The Trustees of Columbia University
in the City of New York / 1099-9949/02 / DOI: 10.1080/10999940801937755

Online Publication Date: 01 January 2008
To cite this Article: Sawyer, Mark (2008) 'Commentary: On Black Leadership, Black Politics, and the U.S. Immigration Debate', Souls, 10:1, 42 - 49
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/10999940801937755

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Black leadership has failed to grasp what is at stake in the debate and struggle
over anti-immigration legislation. There are social, economic, and moral grounds
calling for Black people to take a stance on the side of immigrant populations.
The responsibility for Black people to be the guiding light for freedom and human
dignity is clearly revealed in the work of DuBois. The Black perspective is unique
for recognizing when people are conceptually placed outside the ''American''
people. Some Latinos have helped foster confusion by attempting to identify
Latinos as just another ''ethnic'' group to distinguish them from the Black ''racial
group.'' Among other shortcomings this conceptualization fails to recognize
''Afro-Latinos.'' The creation of a service Latino underclass threatens the wellbeing
of the whole working class and organized labor. As the Latinos expose
the hypocrisy of U.S. society, Black people must join them in righteous struggle.
Black people are the most egregious victims of that hypocrisy.

We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.
-Martin Luther King Jr.

In the wake of the massive mobilization of immigrants in the U.S. in the Spring of 2006, I
have looked in fascination and sometimes concern at the lack of response from Black leadership.
While for some the response to anti-immigrant legislation has been formally clear,
given the potential for racism and human rights abuses the response from Black leadership
has been extraordinarily muted. In the context of that vacuum, the media has portrayed
the feelings of African Americans as ranging from anti-immigrant to ambivalent. Many
African Americans are fearful, some are hateful, and some just do not care. Black leadership
has failed to grasp what is at stake in this debate and continues to fail to articulate a
clear message on a number of social and economic issues of relevance to the African
American community. On moral grounds, African Americans must stand by their
tradition of being the guiding light for freedom and human dignity in the U.S. and around
the world and support the legalization of the more than 12 million people in the U.S.
struggling for basic rights and desperately trying to obtain what so many Americans take
for granted: their citizenship. However, we as a community and leaders of our community
must educate ourselves and make sure the media do not allow fear to drive our choices.
But how do we fill the vacuum?

The immigration debate engages age-old questions for African Americans. Booker T.
Washington in his famous Atlanta Exposition address urged U.S. industrialists not to turn
to unknown foreigners who might take the country in unknown and negative directions,
but to work closely with the known quantity of African Americans (Washington 1995).
However, Washington and current Black leadership both have failed to understand the
ongoing nexus between conceptions of race, nation, and citizenship and the dynamics of
racial exclusion and class issues. These are especially salient in the post-civil rights era.
When Washington's counterpart (and sometimes nemesis) W.E.B. Du Bois proposed
the concept of double consciousness, it was in profound recognition of the tension between
a Black identity placed outside of the boundaries of being authentically American (Du Bois
1987). The same has been the case for Latinos and Asians, who are consistently constructed
both as racialized and colonial subjects within the U.S. Thus, while we recognize
that Latinos are not a ''race,'' not even in our non-scientific folk conception of such, we
still understand that Latinos-and especially Mexican Americans-have in many cases
what is known as racialized ethnicity (Martin Alcoff 2000; Grosfoguel 2003). That is, they
are perceived to be endowed with a set of negative and immutable characteristics that, like
African Americans, make them unassimilable and therefore unworthy of full citizenship
rights. Why then is this not seen as a civil rights issue?

Much of Black leadership, academia, and the media have accepted a hegemonic definition
of the Civil Rights Movement that focuses primarily on the social dimensions of racial
exclusion and thinks of civil rights in entirely domestic terms. This narrative ignores the
more inclusionary aspects of racial domination, i.e., the process of labor exploitation, cultural
appropriation, colonial disruptions, and forced and semi-forced migrations that have
been the hallmark of the development of Western nations in general and the U.S. in particular
(Sawyer 2006). Thinkers and activists like W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Martin
Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, A. Philip Randolph, James Baldwin, Ella Baker, and
others saw the process of racial oppression of African Americans in the U.S. as intimately
related to earlier processes of slavery, colonialism and the aggressiveness of U.S. foreign
policy in the region (Plummer 1996; Von Eschen 1997; Dudziak 2002; Singh 2005). African
Americans were not brought to this country simply to be the object of racial hatred, genocide,
and cultural destruction, but also in order to integrate them into a political economy
of race that allowed them to be simultaneously dehumanized and exploited for
their labor (Robinson 1991; Du Bois 1995).

There is nothing new about Mexican migration or migration from Central America and
the Caribbean, and it all follows a similar pattern. The racist and nativist rants against
Mexicans in particular but, also against Dominicans, Asians, and other migrants demonstrates
this integrative process. The employability of Latinos in America's worst jobs
demonstrates how the construction of illegality and its maintenance through the racialized
rhetoric of the perpetual and inferior colonial foreign subject, both legally and in practice
marks undocumented migrants (particularly brown, indigenous ones) for labor exploitation
and segmented participation in labor markets.

This is not to deny the psychological, and at times psycho-sexual, nature of racial animus.
However, it is to note that if we make the mistake of thinking of racial oppression as
only about creating social distance, we miss the workings of political economies of race
that seek to extract labor at an unfair price from racialized domestic and immigrant
populations. Thus, the history of U.S.-Mexico relations and programs like the Bracero
Program, as well as U.S. colonial adventures in Central America and the Caribbean,
demonstrate the link between our current immigration debate and the inextricable
connection between race, racism, and nation. If we understand U.S. racism and white
supremacy in their international forms in relation to colonialism, slavery as well as in
racial constructions of national belonging that repeat themselves in places like the
U.S., Canada, and Europe, we then understand that the struggle for rights for immigrants
and against labor and other forms of exploitation is not a struggle that is alien
or beyond the concern of African Americans. It is only if we hold a domestic and social
definition of the civil rights movement that we can turn a deaf ear on the concern for
immigrant human rights.

We also must recognize the racialized and frequently racist language that has characterized
the immigration debate in ways that should give African Americans pause. Samuel
Huntington's ''Who are We'' set off a profound debate on Latinos and immigration
(Huntington 2004). Singling out Latinos (and especially Mexican migrants), Huntington
suggested that they are unassimilable and pose a threat to the Anglo-Protestant culture
that has made America the great country it is. Pundits like Lou Dobbs and Patrick
Buchanan have taken a similar line in attacking Latinos. However, some Latino academics
and commentators and their liberal defenders have made a tremendous mistake in
response. In order to reply to Huntington, rather than denounce the obvious racism of
his attacks, they have taken to emphasizing Latinos' worthiness for citizenship by casting
them as ''ethnics'' in a process of assimilation, similar to Italians and the Irish and in negative
contrast with Blacks. These authors never challenge either Huntington's implicit construction
of a ''white'' dominant culture in America or his argument that race no longer
plays a role in the life-chances of people of color.

Authors like Richard Alba, David Hayes Bautista, and Gregory Rodriguez also take
this line and suggest that Latinos are the quintessential hardworking Americans who
are seeking to assimilate into the norms and ideals of the U.S. They emphasize that-
unlike African Americans-Latinos do not seem to be adopting a ''culture of poverty.''
The picture is clear. For these pundits Latino acceptance depends upon assimilation, racial
distancing from Blacks, and not adopting an oppositional racial consciousness similar to
Blacks. African Americans are rightly upset by these responses. However, these scholars
are wrong on both normative and analytical grounds. Clearly, they do not speak for
the entire Latino community. There is nothing ''new'' about Latino immigrants: Mexicans
in particular have been a part of the American landscape for a long time and have consistently
been racialized as both other and inferior. The virulent reactions to Mexicans and
their children by white racist and mainstream organizations speaks to their ongoing racialization
in American society. Similarly, these debates ignore the existence of Afro-Latinos
and Black migrants from Africa and the Caribbean.

Thankfully, people on the street are not adopting this stance. Unlike pundits and some
academics, the people on the street at the immigrant marches saw what they were struggling
against as racism. Their signs expressed anti-racist slogans and also challenged the
exploitation of their labor. They made the connection between the idea that current
immigration policy makes them available for labor exploitation, just as Jim Crow and
other manifestations of racism continue to make African Americans available for labor
exploitation. As African Americans have learned to use their citizenship rights to challenge
exploitation, employers have shifted to a new source of exploitable labor: undocumented

While this might lead one to believe that Latinos are ''taking African-American jobs,''
the reality is far more complicated. There is no clear economic data that suggests that Latinos
have taken African-American jobs where there have been cases of employer preferences
for Latinos. These employers have tended to use undocumented Latinos' lack of
rights in order to guarantee their exploitation. The nexus between race, class, gender,
and citizenship status reveals a complex web in which employers ''prefer'' the most exploitable
labor, not individuals whom they see as equals, co-ethnics, or co-nationals. Thus,
preference for immigrant labor should not be interpreted as a form of assimilation for
Latinos. Further, these employers do not see, nor are they creating a path for upward
mobility for Latino laborers. This is why whites in places like Orange County, California
simultaneously exploit Latino gardeners, nannies, and pool cleaners while developing
ordinances to increase deportability, deny educational access for their children, and
restrictive zoning to maintain their marginality (Lacayo 2007). In this way, Latino barrios
are far more similar to South African Bantustans than any of us might care to admit. The
sting of de facto apartheid is felt just as sharply.

However, this alone does not overcome concerns from the African-American community.
One major fallacy that is repeated often is the idea that Latinos have either taken
African-American jobs or are responsible for African-American unemployment. The
history of Los Angeles and other places that have received large numbers of immigrants
tells a different story. African Americans moved from the South to the North and West in
massive numbers, not in order to work as domestics, gardeners, and busboys, but to work
in a growing manufacturing sector that offered middle-class wages and opportunities for
upward mobility. Those jobs that helped build the Black middle class, have gone overseas.
They have not been ''taken'' by Mexican workers. Further, Black teachers, postal
workers, and bus drivers in the unionized public service sector have benefited from immigration.
Immigrants curbed the slide in urban populations around the country that was
causing cut-backs in city budgets and reducing public services and jobs for the Black
middle class. A recent PPIC study reveals that workers benefit from immigrant labor
in both jobs and wages. These direct effects are masked by the countervailing forces
mentioned above.

What is true is that Black and Latino workers share similar difficulties. Blacks and
Latinos are dropping out of high school at alarming rates. Far from realizing the
immigrant American dream, Latinos are fast becoming an intergenerational group of lowskilled
exploitable workers who in subsequent generations face rates of incarceration similar
to that of African Americans. To all of our detriment, Black and Latino political leadership
have not pushed a policy agenda that challenges exploitation, deportability, and mass incarceration
for Black and brown youth. Further, to the extent that wages for low-skilled workers
are declining, the prudent response is to support unionization, human and labor rights, and a
higher minimum or living wage. The recent efforts to improve the minimum wage and to support
''card check'' unionization that allows workers to overcome intimidation tactics by
employers who fear workers with rights are steps in the right directions, but how often do
African American political elites place these issues at the top of the agenda? These are the
issues that also link the concerns of African Americans and Latinos together in ways that
move beyond perceptions of group difference and=or threat. Unfortunately, there has been
a significant retreat from these issues on the agendas of national and state politics. As the
Latino high school drop-out rate approaches and tops fifty percent in many communities,
we are not seeing the next great American success story, but a group who will likely be left
behind as the new economy moves forward. Black leadership must redouble its efforts on
central issues like job development, fair wages, prison reform, sentencing reform, crime
prevention, universal health care, and quality education. These issues that are rarely on
the front of the national political agenda are essential to both African Americans and
Latinos. Further, an enforceable ''living wage'' is also in the interests of African American
and immigrant workers of all colors and consistent with values of fairness and ethical
assistance. Work should pay in America and too often for Black, brown, white, and yellow
workers, legal or undocumented, it does not.

Even if you don't agree with what I have written so far, it is clear that turning 12 million
people in the U.S. into felons will not be good for African Americans. It will redirect
scarce resources towards the capture and incarceration of such people. It will make them
more vulnerable to employer exploitation and is simply inconsistent with values of human
rights embodied by the African-American struggle. The racism inherent in such a policy
fuels a beast that again will consign African Americans to irrelevance and will cast Latinos
into further exploitation. The ordinances being passed by cities and towns to prevent
renting to the undocumented and that turn migrants into virtual fugitives invites not only
discrimination against immigrants, but discrimination against all Latinos regardless of
status. Re-legalizing racial discrimination is a profoundly dangerous road. Further, the
policies are not, as anthropologist Nicholas de Genova suggests, to actually achieve deportation
of Latino immigrants but, to produce ''deportability.'' Deportability relegates
Latino immigrants (and natives too) to a fugitive status from which they can be freely
exploited since they cannot exercise normal citizenship rights under fear of deportation.
Note that we have been here before with the Fugitive Slave Act, Plessy v. Ferguson,
and myriad aspects of Jim Crow that-while not mentioning race-were no less directed
at a particular racial group and were no less pernicious.

Perhaps our leaders do not understand how far in reverse we may go. In 2007, the Texas
state legislature began considering the possibility of challenging the current interpretation
of the 14th Amendment such that children born of undocumented immigrants would not
be considered citizens. This radical change in the U.S.'s citizenship regime strikes at a core
thread that guarantees those born in the U.S. the rights and some version of the privileges
of citizenship. Jus solis rather than jus sanguine citizenship rights have been the hallmark
of American democracy since the abolition of slavery. This is in jeopardy. We are looking
towards a citizenship regime that will create new forms of racially stratified citizenship
that will in turn condemn multiple generations of Latinos and other immigrants to
marginal status.

Further, the racialized language that casts Latinas as having ''anchor babies'' in order
to stave off deportation and attempt to guarantee their own ability to remain in the U.S.
bears a striking resemblance to the racist rhetoric that characterizes African-American
women as having children in order to obtain welfare benefits. This racialized and racist
language should be shocking to those concerned about America's racial history.
The prospect of creating new and overtly racial forms of citizenship at the local and=or
federal level is a dangerous slippery slope that is not merely about policies, but about fundamental
principles of fairness and human rights. This shocking attack on a community
and the proposals to convert millions of people living in our midsts into felons drew the
convulsive response that constituted some of the largest protests in American history.
I attended the May 1st (2006) rally in Los Angeles and the marchers saw their struggle
as one for citizenship and empowerment and against racism, as many of their signs read.
Others were in solidarity with displaced African Americans from Hurricane Katrina.
Immigrants fighting for their rights are not picking a fight with Black folks. Do we, as
African Americans, think we can go it alone and achieve our political goals in the future?
What about the fact that a good 2 million of Latinos are ''Black,'' not to mention African
and Caribbean immigrants? What have African Americans ever gained from joining with
white racists? How will it harm African-American interests to have 12 million more voters
who will likely support more social spending, unionization, and a range of other policies
that are in line with the policy preferences of African Americans and especially the poorest
among us?

By supporting this movement and fair, humane and rational immigration policies, a living
wage, unionization, and battling racism wherever it exists, African Americans can
make long-term and powerful political allies. Together, we can transform politics in this
country, rather than playing a game of divide and conquer. Like it or not, African Americans
are no longer the largest minority in the United States. That is a fact that will remain
unchanged. If we don't stand for our principles and we stand with racists, we guarantee
our own future irrelevancy and moral decline. The bottom line is that African Americans
need to help move the immigration debate and stand on principle rather than on narrow
''interests'' or ''ethnic competition.'' That means attacking racism and mobilizing around
issues that will help African Americans advance. If we can't stand with Latinos on this
issue we will all fall.

The perfect example of this lack of vision was in the ultimately successful Proposition
187 campaign in California, that attempted to strip basic rights from immigrants and garnered
a majority of African-American votes. It gave momentum to the conservative ballot
initiative movement and paved the way for Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action
initiative, now being considered in other states as a result of its wins in California,
Washington, and Michigan. There is a domino effect we need to understand. African
Americans unwittingly sowed the seeds of our own destruction by not standing with
Latinos on this issue.

On the other hand, victories by forces for democracy, rights, and citizenship can have
the same momentum. Just as the victory for civil rights by African Americans helped
create minimum wage laws, more humane and (less) racist immigration policies and other
positive reforms in the United States, this movement can have the same effect. Now that
Latinos are fighting racism and for citizenship rights, we-as African Americans-have a
stake in their winning. If they=we win, our next fights will be for unionization, expanded
voting rights, living wages, more funding to public education, and universal health care.
These are all issues that immigrants, Latinos, and African Americans share. Further, we
will also fight for affirmative action together because Latinos have been and continue
to be supportive of these policies.

Currently, the immigrant rights movements are the most vocal element shattering the
immoral right wing orthodoxy in America and fracturing the Republican Party. It is great
that Latinos are, in many ways, exposing the hypocrisy of the Republicans and their failed
policies by carrying the struggle to the streets. The power structure fears this movement,
but if we are righteous we have nothing to fear. No one imagined that such a mass mobilization
of people was possible in this era. ''Americans are too apathetic, too comfortable,
to try to change the world,'' they say. But there are those among us who see the injustice of
racism and exploitation and through their own lack of basic rights are best positioned to
remind us of how tenuous, incomplete, and threatened those rights are. We have all
lamented this apathy, but we must be ready to act when we see a movement that challenges

This is an enormous opportunity for us, both politically and analytically. As academics
we must understand the growth and diffusion of this movement and develop strategies and
tactics to understand how so many people can be mobilized so quickly. Further, we must
take advantage of the opportunity to educate members of the African-American and
Latino communities about our shared struggles for meaningful citizenship rights and
against either their denial or proffering as second-class citizenship of any kind. It is a living
struggle and we must struggle with our friends who share our values for justice and who
also struggle against racism. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ''In the end, we will
remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.'' Thus, it is both
pragmatic and righteous to support legalization now for the 12 million undocumented
immigrants in the U.S. and to support a rational immigration policy that respects human
and labor rights above ethnic pride and national purity.

Black leadership must now stand on principle. These principles must guide Black leadership
even if in some local contexts Latino labor may mean short-term harm to vulnerable
Black workers. The basic bedrock principles of racially equality and universal rights
have been too hard-fought for African Americans to throw them away over a few minimum
wage jobs. This is the trade-off that must be discussed in moral terms and in terms
that articulate what has been our strongest high ground as African Americans.

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