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, my grandmother’s mother, 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.
As I’ve watched immigrants march and make the evening news, I have grown possessed of the same ambivalence and alarm that has struck other sympathetic Black people across the country. 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.
The language of the movement directly evokes a painful history. Immigrants who in the past laid claim to this now re-imagined American dream were complicit in a system of racism that made the dream of health, safety and happiness an empty promise for Black people. The immigrants on the march today threaten to go the way of the Irish, the Italian and the Jew: they will pay the price of the ticket for American citizenship by yielding to a racial hierarchy that leaves Blacks at the bottom. There is no doubt the past can repeat itself. But 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.
On May Day, immigrants and their advocates 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 of “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.
In earnest, the progressive community redeploys the narrative of the immigrant as the hard-working symbol of American opportunity and progress. It can mean nothing, however, but alienation for Black people. First, and most important, we know this myth is false. Without our 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.
Listening to the language of immigrant rights in 2006, any sensible Black person should respond with ambivalence. We can hardly be expected 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 have generated serious alarm in Black communities that headlines of ‘Black/Brown Conflict’ have largely missed or mistaken.
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 70s and 80s 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 access to basic rights, every new immigrant group has moved faster and further up the ladder.
But the squeeze Black people are articulate in response to the arrival of new immigrants goes beyond laws and regulations put on paper. 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”. But the truth is, Black people have been disproportionately supportive of virtually ever other movement for human rights at home and abroad. Time and history have shown that the descendents of a brutal regime 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 has been swept up in red baiting, war-mongering and a “with us or against us” war on terror, Blacks overwhelming 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 a passive acceptance of anti-black racism in exchange for integration into the culture and economy of the U.S., might issue a warrant for the future seizure of their own tenuous rights.
The truth is, 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 the top.
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 were 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, some arriving yesterday. 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. But that requires non-immigrants and immigrants to look critically at our lived experiences, to think beyond our individual needs to envision the true dismantling of racism that blocks opportunity for us all. Black people are being called on to take that broader view, to support human rights for immigrants even as our own are denied. It is certainly a lot to ask from a movement that does not claim our history, nor articulate a vision that is invested 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.