As soon as Arizona’s fascist anti-immigrant SB1070 legislation passed, black civil rights leaders from Jesse Jackson to California Assembly member Karen Bass roundly condemned it. The toxic national climate couldn’t be more primed for this law. In recent months, the high octane atmosphere of jingoistic racism, xenophobia and Manifest Destiny posturing amongst white zealots and the legislators who shill for them has become standard order. Now that the nation is in an uproar over SB1070, civil rights coalitions have begun trying to mobilize African American opposition to the Bill by linking black social justice activism with the immigrant rights movement.
However, when it comes to immigration rights and reform, there is a pronounced disconnect between black leadership and average black folk. In the L.A. African American Conservative Examiner respondents expressed support for SB1070. One believed that if similar laws were enacted in California it would be a deterrent to attacks on African Americans by Mexican immigrants. On the liberal to moderate The Grio website some black posters sounded off about bearing the brunt of racial discrimination, yet saw little connection between their experiences and an authoritarian crackdown on Arizonans of color under the legislation.
Living elbow to elbow with Latinos in the same socioeconomically depressed communities, black anxiety over interracial violence and social/demographic usurpation by Latinos in the low wage job sector has intensified. In cities where black and Latino day laborers compete for construction and home improvement jobs, white hiring preferences for Latinos have ignited controversy over racist stereotypes about lazy blacks versus hardworking Mexicans. In Los Angeles communities where predominantly black neighborhood schools have become majority Latino, social and classroom segregation between the two groups is a hard reality. The prevalence of Latino anti-black prejudice, ranging from “pigmentocracy” bias to caricaturing blacks as backward and “ghetto,” is a recurring complaint among some African American youth. Further, the perception that Latino organizations don’t support African American activism around such issues as racial profiling and police brutality has long fueled mainstream black wariness of black/Latino coalition building.
It is little wonder then that during last month’s Washington D.C. immigration reform protests there was a notable dearth of black participation. According to the online magazine The Root, immigrants of African descent purportedly don’t participate in immigrant rights activism because of class differences with Latin American immigrants. African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants who come to the U.S. legally on H1-B or student visas may perceive immigration reform as a “Latino phenomenon.” Seeking professional careers, many don’t identify with the socioeconomic desperation that motivates undocumented Latin American workers and families to come to the U.S.
Homegrown black support for or ambivalence about the Arizona law is symptomatic of a deep vein of frustration, anger, cultural resentment and xenophobia. Study after study indicates that African Americans are the most residentially segregated, suffer the greatest discrimination in job application and employment, and are amongst the biggest recipients of predatory mortgage loans. Fifty-six years after Brown v. Board there is greater social isolation between African Americans and whites in comparison to other racial groups. And white backlash to Obama’s election continues to illustrate the intractability of post-Jim Crow racism.
Because of the legacies of slavery and racial apartheid, the word “nigger” is still the universal signifier for dehumanization and otherness. For this reason, black liberation resistance has always been based on the struggle for recognition of both African American humanity and the basic right to citizenship. So there has always been a visceral yearning amongst black folk to wake up one morning and not be the ultimate other. A yearning to truly be considered a “native” son or daughter in a global empire based on forced African American immigration.
For many working class African Americans who see the gains of the Civil Rights era smoldering in the ashes of staggering unemployment, incarceration and high school drop-out rates, the plight of recently arrived undocumented immigrants does not register as a cause for solidarity. Ignorant of the bloody history of European imperial conquest of the Southwest, African Americans selectively lap up the white nationalist “taking back our country” swill at their peril. Creating a pure police state to “protect” (white) citizens from government-coddled illegals and welfare leeches is part of the same old divide and conquer dynamic that allows the way white elites profit from illegal immigrant labor and low wage black labor to go unexamined.
Recently, a white Alabama Republican gubernatorial candidate called for the state’s driver license exam to be given in English because, “If you want to live here, (you need to) learn it.” This nativist attempt to secure the borders of the new Confederacy is a harbinger of public policy that hearkens back to the literacy tests, poll taxes and other disfranchising regimes of Jim Crow.
Word to ambivalent black folk—the narrative of nationhood, when spun by white supremacists, will never include you, no matter how Anglo your sur (read, slave) name or how “un-inflected” your English is. In the lynch mob mentality of some law enforcement, SB1070’s mandate for investigation with “reasonable suspicion” will always mean you.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.