Posted on May 31, 2005

Black Workers Hurt Themselves by not Taking Bottom-Rung Jobs

Tannette Johnson-Elie, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 24

There was a time in this country when black folks did the kind of work that nobody else wanted — the hardest, dirtiest and most dangerous of jobs. That’s what we had to do to survive and get ahead in a racist society.

Now, Mexican President Vicente Fox has come under fire for a statement he made that points out the naked truth: Mexican immigrants “are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States.”

Tell me, how many black folks do you know who are willing to pick lettuce and tomatoes on a farm, or wash dishes and mop the floors in some restaurant, or spread cow manure to fertilize crops and do other field work? You can look around and see that fewer African-Americans are working such jobs.

“My Mexican workers — I don’t care if it’s rainy, snowing or if it’s hot — they are willing to work,” says Joseph Nevels, an African-American and president of Nevels Landscape Co. in Grafton. “It doesn’t matter what kind of work. As far as Mexicans are concerned, any type of work that they get is better than life back home.”

Almost every major industrial sector in the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in its reliance on Mexican workers since the 1990s, according to the American Immigration Law Foundation.

Data from the 2004 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ population survey show that in service occupations, 18% of maids and housekeepers are African-Americans, compared with 38.2% for Hispanics or Latinos; 8.5% of grounds and maintenance workers in the U.S. are African-American, compared with 40.2% of Hispanics or Latinos; 17.8% of janitors and building cleaners in the U.S. are black, compared with 26.8% for Hispanic or Latinos; and 11.5% of workers in food preparation and serving-related occupations are African-American, compared with 19.3% for Hispanics or Latinos.

And those are the jobs that are on the books.

“By and large, African-Americans don’t want this kind of work,” says Clayborn Benson, founder and executive director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum, 2620 W. Center St. “What Fox is saying is true. You hear it in the form of black kids who say, ‘I don’t want to work at no McDonald’s’ or they don’t want a minimum wage job.”