May 24, 2007 - Issue 231
Anti-Immigrant in Black Face?
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
BC Editorial Board
The picture in the ad immediately caught my attention. The photo was of a very dignified older African American man looking into the camera, very determined and equally pensive. Underneath his photo was a caption giving his name—T. Willard Fair—and the fact that he was the veteran of 40 years of struggle in the Civil Rights Movement.
This was certainly enough to pique my interest.
Beneath the caption was a statement declaring that the alleged threat to African Americans comes from documented and undocumented immigrants. He went on to suggest that any notion of legalizing undocumented workers was a slap in the face of African Americans. The ad is associated with a group called the “Coalition for the Future American Worker.”
Fair’s attack is not surprising, although the virulence and historical nature of it is very unsettling, particularly because it is bound to strike a chord among many African Americans.
Black America has been taking a prolonged economic hit since the mid 1970s. The economic reorganization which many people call de-industrialization has had a devastating impact on the Black worker, disproportionately so. The elimination and/or shrinkage of manufacturing jobs in urban centers has had the effect of hollowing out entire communities, destabilizing Black America economically, socially and politically. Rather than the flight of the so-called middle class, Black America has witnessed the disintegration of segments of its working class and professional/managerial class.
This crisis began well before there was a significant influx of immigrants, and it is this crisis that has been haunting us. This crisis has been compounded by the right-wing political assault on the public sector, largely through anti-tax revolts and privatization, which has resulted in both a decline in services and a decline in employment (with the latter also having a disproportionate impact on the Black worker).
Fair and his coalition mention nothing about this, which in and of itself is quite significant. Instead they focus on the competition from the immigrant worker. While competition exists, particularly in very low wage work, the problem does not lie with the immigrants but with the desire on the part of employers to find workers who will accept the lowest possible wages. This has been demonstrated in any number of industries, not the least of which was the janitorial industry during the 1980s that went from very African American to very Latino after the industry was reorganized.
Fair makes it appear that immigrants are the ones closing steel mills and auto plants. They are not. Fair acts as if the immigrant workers are carrying out ethnic cleansing against African Americans. They are not. We are, however, being cleansed from entire industries because of the greed of employers who are always looking at the bottom line and who seek the cheapest possible workforce, and eventually, if possible, no human workforce at all, but just a line of robots.
Instead of Fair and his grouping focusing on the policies that have been destroying African American employment, they instead pick the easy - and wrong - target of the immigrant. And, it is easy to pick the immigrant. For instance, in the construction industry, an industry that African Americans, along with non-immigrant Latinos (particularly Puerto Ricans and Chicanos) and Asians fought for years to get into, immigrant workers are increasing dramatically as a significant proportion of the workforce. What is noteworthy is that this is happening largely in the lower-paid, non-union construction workforce where, once again, the ‘logic’ of capitalism prevails in the search for a low-wage workforce. While the Black worker wants a construction job, s/he is not looking for low-wage construction work with no benefits. Consider the conditions into which Latino immigrant construction workers were placed when many were brought to New Orleans for the reconstruction of the city. Under non-union conditions, they were often housed in a prison-like environment, and frequently cheated out of pay.
No, Mr. Fair and your cohorts, the problem is not the immigrant worker. The problem is the system. And, just as African American workers were used in certain industries as low-wage workers in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, in order to undercut higher paid workers, this changed dramatically through a combination of unionization and the Black Freedom Movement.
What lessons can we draw from this?
Without disrespecting the life and history of Mr. Fair, who I am sure made contributions to our struggle for justice, somewhere along the line he fell prey to the emotional and hallucinatory appeal of attacking immigrants as a means of saving the Black worker. Not only is this morally bankrupt, but it is also politically bankrupt. If we do not have an accurate analysis of the problem, we cannot possibly develop a good strategy to resolve it. Or, perhaps it was better and more succinctly put by the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland when he said, "if you don’t know where you want to go, any road will get you there."
BC Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor and international activist and writer. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.