Many Blacks Split with Leadership on Immigration

Many Blacks Split with Leadership on Immigration

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The cameras homed in on the Reverend Al Sharpton as he led thousands to the Arizona state capitol building in Phoenix in an old fashioned, energetic, shouting, chanting, sign-carrying civil rights style march. The marchers demanded the repeal of Arizona’s hotly contested immigration law. Meanwhile, on the periphery of the march, a small band of counter protesters shouted, hooted, and hectored Sharpton and the other marchers. Their action drew almost no news mention. However, their counter-protest was different. They were mostly African American. The temptation is to laugh off their pro-SB 1070 countermarch as a comic sideshow. After all, Sharpton, President Obama, all major civil rights groups, the Congressional Black Caucus and nearly all local black Democratic state and local officials unequivocally champion immigration reform and oppose the Arizona law.

But many blacks don’t agree with them.

In fact, there is a quiet but glaring disconnect between civil rights leaders’ outspoken support for liberal immigration reform measures and the unease, wariness and outright antipathy that many blacks feel toward illegal immigration. That disconnect is evident in blog posts, chat rooms, Web sites, letters to newspaper editors, and radio talk shows. Many blacks blame illegal immigrants for the poverty and job dislocation in black communities.

A 2006 Pew Hispanic Center poll found that more blacks than whites say that illegal immigrants should not be denied education and services. But the tolerance ends when it comes to jobs. Far more blacks than whites agree that illegal immigrants take jobs away from blacks and claim to know someone who has lost a job because of illegal immigration.

The first big warning sign of black frustration with illegal immigration came during the battle over Proposition 187 in California in 1994. White voters voted by big margins for the proposition that denied public services to undocumented immigrants. More than half of blacks voted against the measure. But nearly fifty percent of black voters supported it.

Then Republican Gov. Pete Wilson shamelessly pandered to anti-immigrant hysteria and rode it to a reelection victory. Wilson got nearly 20 percent of the black vote in that election -- double what Republicans in California typically get from blacks. Wilson almost certainly bumped up his black vote total with his freewheeling assault on illegal immigration. Blacks also gave substantial support to anti-bilingual ballot measures in California.

Though there is furious dispute over the economic impact that the estimated 10 to 15 million undocumented immigrants in the United States have on the job market, there is no concrete evidence that the majority of employers hire Latinos at low-end jobs and exclude blacks from them solely because of their race. The sea of state and federal anti-discrimination laws explicitly ban employment discrimination. Despite a handful of lawsuits and settlements by blacks with major employers for alleged racial favoritism toward Hispanic workers, employers vehemently deny that they shun blacks, and maintain that blacks simply don't apply for these jobs.

These aren't just flimsy covers for discrimination. Many blacks will no longer work the low-skilled, menial factory, restaurant, and custodial jobs that they filled in decades past. The pay is too low, the work too hard, and the indignities too great. On the other hand, blacks that seek these jobs are often given a quick brush-off by employers. The subtle message is that blacks won't be hired, even if they do apply. An entire category of jobs at the bottom rung of American industry has been clearly marked as "Latino-only." That further deepens suspicion and resentment among blacks that illegal immigration is to blame for the economic misery of poor blacks.

A Pew Hispanic Center survey in 2008 found that tens of thousands of blacks were employed in the top occupational categories for undocumented workers (farming, maintenance, construction, food service, production and moving). The survey also found that a significant percent of meat-processing workers and janitors were black. Even more surprising, more than 10 percent of blacks were still involved in agriculture -- an area that is largely seen as the province of undocumented immigrants.

Illegal immigration then and now is not the prime reason so many poor young blacks are on the streets, and why some turn to gangs, guns and drug dealing to get ahead. A shrinking economy, savage state and federal government cuts, the elimination of job training programs, failing public schools, a soaring black prison population, and employment discrimination are still the major reasons for the grim employment prospects and poverty in inner-city black neighborhoods.

The group that shouted their pro-Arizona immigration law slogans at Sharpton was not much of a sideshow to the immigration march. But their message -- that civil rights leaders say one thing about immigration while many blacks feel another way about it -- is a sign that immigration draws a line in the sand even among blacks.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge" (Middle Passage Press). Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: twitter.com/earlhutchinson