Immigration, Intergroup Conflict, And The Erosion Of African American Political Power In The 21st Century

Frank Morris and James G. Gimpel, Center for Immigration Studies, February 2007


African American gains in office-holding appear to be leveling off at higher levels of office, while Latino gains are rapidly rising. These gains are coming at the expense of non-Hispanic white office-holders and African Americans, though African Americans are more threatened given their smaller overall numbers.

Steadily rising immigrant populations will continue to change the racial complexion of U.S. House representation in a number of California, Texas, and New York congressional districts within the next 20 years.

With the 2010 census redistricting, just a few years away, as many as six seats currently held by members of the Congressional Black Caucus could be given up to Latino candidates.

A new awareness has dawned on observers of ethnic and racial politics in America. As the immigrant population has dramatically increased over the past 40 years, the prospect that these new arrivals may compete with subsets of American natives for jobs, housing, positional status, and political representation has become a reality. Recent studies have begun to document, in rising levels of detail, the tension that has emerged between immigrant groups and lower-skilled American natives, a high proportion of whom are African American (Gay, forthcoming; McClain et al. 2006; Kim 2000; Vaca 2004; Hirschman, Kasinitz and DeWind 1999).

Up to very recently, it has been considered politically incorrect, or at least impolite, to suggest that minority groups within American society may not get along well or actually wind up in not-so-friendly competition for scarce resources. The wishful thoughts of those who imagine a blissful rainbow coalition have politicized discussions of interethnic relations, pushing out warnings about the crowding taking place on the lower rungs of the nation’s socioeconomic ladder.


Competition for Economic Goods


To be sure, Latinos, Asians, and other groups of more recent immigrant ancestry are also showing a remarkable capacity to settle in locations other than the traditional immigrant ports of entry (Logan 2001; Suro and Singer 2002). While Latinos are still highly segregated from Anglo-whites in suburbia, and show nothing like white levels of residential mobility and income growth, they are better able to sidestep the residential isolation that impedes African American prosperity. When asked by survey researchers, Asians and Latinos are more likely than native-born African Americans to report that they have the same opportunities as whites (Chong and Kim 2006, 340). Most of the natives that are trapped in the worst big-city labor markets are African American. The instrument of their isolation is, in part, sustained high levels of immigration into adjoining areas, and to areas exhibiting employment growth in the low-skill labor market where employers commonly show a preference for immigrants over African Americans.

The sustained flow of immigrants directly into or adjacent to hard-pressed, historically African American locales raises questions about whether competition between groups for scarce resources erupts into frustration, violence (Baldassare 1994), or at the very least, feelings of contempt for rival groups (Kaufmann 2006). Given the poverty and unemployment of many big-city neighborhoods, there is every reason to believe that the pressures caused by sustained high levels of immigration might lead to social strains within a community. Particularly at the bottom rungs of the social and economic hierarchy, one might expect that competition between immigrants and the native-born, as well as among rival immigrant groups, might produce resentment, higher levels of social disorder (Johnson, Farrell and Guinn 1999), psychological stress, and even higher levels of mortality (LeClere, Rogers and Peters 1997). More generally, we live in an era of weak political institutions that hardly provide the social control functions provided during the last great immigrant influx (Janowitz 1978). While today=s service bureaucracies are capable of controlling outputs, they lack the communal ties that afforded local political party organizations early in the last century the capacity to shape both inputs and outputs.


Recently accumulated evidence suggests that the Great Black Migration from the South to northern cities, a development that greatly advanced African American economic progress, would have occurred decades earlier had immigration restrictions been in place (Collins 1997). African Americans moved at times and to places where the foreign-born were less prominent (Collins 1997, 629; Drake and Cayton 1962). Labor market competition resulting from generous immigration is also said to have resulted in displaced hostility toward African Americans in the late 19th century, because they possessed less power to fight back (Olzak 1989).

In more recent years, low-skilled and uneducated whites have been found to express the most virulent racism because of the glut of unskilled immigrant and African American workers thought to be ready to take their jobs (Cummings 1977; 1980). Intergroup hostility, by these accounts, may well be an expression of self-interested calculations anchored in perceived economic vulnerability.

Mounting evidence points to the economic dislocation of African Americans resulting from high levels of mass immigration (Borjas 1998, 2001; Stevans 1998; Johnson and Oliver 1989; Bluestone and Stevenson 2000). To be sure, the average impact of immigration on an entire population may be slight, as many of the traditional econometric analyses have indicated, but the community or sectoral effects may still be considerable. Even if we grant the controversial contention that mass immigration is a net economic benefit to the society, the costs are borne disproportionately by those at lower socioeconomic strata, particularly African American men, while the benefits accrue at the top of the socioeconomic and racial hierarchy (Borjas 2001).


Finally, while economists may continue to debate various economic indicators to evaluate whether the low-skill labor market really is a zero-sum game (for a summary see Lim 2001), students of public opinion have shown that minorities believe that as one group gains, another loses, and that one group’s misfortune becomes another’s opportunity (Gay, forthcoming; Ha and Oliver 2006; Bobo and Hutchings 1996; Nelson and Perez-Monforti 2006). Unskilled natives may worry that the influx of immigrants may be injurious to their livelihood, even if the reality is more complex. Workers evaluate immigration policy in accord with their position in the labor force (Scheve and Slaughter 2001, 133). Data analyses originating from the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality (Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Detroit) indicate that African American respondents perceive themselves to be in a battle with Asians and Latinos for economic opportunity (Kaufmann 2006). More than two-thirds of African Americans perceived themselves to be in a zero-sum competition with Asians in Los Angeles, and 61 percent reported that Latinos are zero-sum competitors. The figures for other cities were less lopsided, but still large enough to suggest that the level of perceived threat could drive antagonism and divide these populations against one another.

Competition for Status and Political Position

Groups also compete for political and social status, not just for limited economic goods such as jobs or housing. Certainly, the relevant academic literature examines ethnic competition and conflict over noneconomic goods—status, positional goods, recognition, and community symbols. One of the foremost students of ethnic conflict in Asia and Africa argues that it cannot be adequately explained—at least in those contexts—simply in terms of economic factors (Horowitz 1985). A similar emphasis on the noneconomic sources of intergroup conflict is found in the extensive literature on status conflict in the United States (Blumer 1958; Bobo and Hutchings 1996). An important theme of this work is that status conflicts arise during periods of economic growth and prosperity, when the upward mobility of emergent groups causes social strains between them and previously established groups (Lipset and Raab 1973; Cain and Kiewiet 1986; Hofstadter 1979). Thus, it was only after attaining economic gains beginning in the post-Civil War era that Jews in America sought commensurate status recognition and then began to experience social discrimination (Higham 1975, 138-173).


The recent research of Paula McClain (2006) and her colleagues underscores the fact that recent immigrants regularly express contemptuous attitudes toward native-born African Americans, and that these are most likely attitudes brought with them rather than acquired in the United States. Interestingly, this prejudice is present in spite of the fact that Latinos and Asians are often privileged over native-born African Americans in the housing and labor markets—in spite of their recent arrival (Kaufmann 2006; Holzer 1996; Wilson 1996; Massey and Denton 1993). Their success in the labor market can be accounted for by the large supply of employers who hire immigrants (legal and illegal) who will work for lower wages and without benefits (Kirschenman and Neckerman 1991). All evidence points to the relative economic advantage of Latinos and Asians over similarly skilled African Americans, yet the negative views of immigrants toward African Americans remain firmly anchored, suggesting that economic insecurity is far from the only wellspring of disparaging racial stereotypes (Johnson, Farrell and Guinn 1999; McClain et al. 2006).

There is also increasing evidence that the political arena is a venue for the logic of the zero-sum game. Serious cracks in the rainbow coalition have been noted for at least 10 years, as 45 percent of African American voters supported California’s Proposition 187 (Franklin and Seltzer 2002). In the years since, Latinos and African Americans have been in more regular conflict over such political spoils as municipal jobs, additional council seats, and other perks and benefits associated with holding influential political office (Alozie and Ramirez 1999; Cose and Murr 2006; McClain 1993; Vaca 2004). Latino-African American political coalitions in major cities appear to be more fragile than they were just a few years ago (Kaufmann 2004). Younger generations appear less willing to see themselves as part of a rainbow than older generations who remember the original efforts by minority leaders to form a unified front against white control of public office.

African Americans and Latinos and the Quest for Political Office


The steady rise in Latino political power may not constitute a trend, but there is good reason to believe that it does. First, the Latino population continues to grow at an astounding rate, through the processes of both legal and illegal immigration. Across states, the average Latino growth rate from 2000 to 2004 was 23 percent, compared to just 9 percent for African Americans—undoubtedly an underestimate of Latino growth due to the inability to accurately count illegal entrants. In the 11 most populous states, where new African American members of Congress would most likely emerge, the Latino population grew four times faster than the African American population, with Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and Texas leading the way.

Were the Latino population sprinkled evenly or randomly among the Anglo-white population, perhaps there would be no reason to believe that Latinos were destined for greater political representation at all levels of office. But the figures listed in Table 1 indicate that Latinos are highly segregated from the non-Hispanic white population, particularly in the most populous states: California, Florida, Texas, and New York.

If Latinos are not settling among the native-born white population, then where are they settling? First, they are settling among Latinos who have arrived previously. This pattern is the result of network-based chain migration, along with the advantages of moving to areas where language and culture are familiar (Logan 2001). Second, they are settling in areas where there is affordable housing, and some modicum of employment in the low-skill labor market.

This combination of factors leads many to migrate to the large cities where Latino populations have existed for decades: Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago (Suro and Singer 2002). Through the first five years of this decade, there are no signs that the Hispanic population in these traditional immigrant destinations is diminishing, although there is considerable churn.


Up to now, Latino gains in public office have been fastest at lower levels of office, positions that serve as “farm teams,” or minor league training grounds, for candidates seeking higher office (Franklin and Seltzer 2002). The etiology from there is predictable: increasingly crowded and divisive primaries are likely to emerge, retiring African American incumbents will be replaced by aggressive Latino challengers, or Latinos will challenge African American candidates, winning few seats at first, but gradually gaining leverage. This has already happened in a number of large and medium-sized cities. In Providence, R.I., for example, African American officeholders appear to be in full retreat in the face of advancing Latino political power. The city of Chicago’s Latino population grew by 200,000 between 1990 and 2000, but it also tallied 150,000 fewer whites, and 20,000 fewer African Americans. Entrenched white and African American incumbents may continue to hold the city council seats from the wards to which these Latino populations are flowing, but once they retire, Latino candidates will almost certainly be elected. Latinos are already betting that they will have a serious candidate for the Chicago mayoralty in 2007.

Commonly, interethnic battles for local office are waged behind the scenes rather than in official primaries. Candidates will challenge each other’s bid for ballot positions at local boards of elections. Ironically, liberal candidates usually operating as Democrats will be charged with being anti-democratic, or even racist, for seeking to eliminate African American, Latino, Asian, or gay rivals well before an election. Counting the number of direct primary challenges in which Latinos and African Americans find themselves competing against one another may miss an important part of the competitive gaming that takes place out of the public eye. Nevertheless, we can expect the number of contested primaries to increase in those areas where the party apparatus is unable to broker the conflict before an election.

The Coming Rollback in African American Representation in the U.S. House

Based on Hispanic settlement patterns, and the growth of this population, we can examine several cases in which sitting members of Congress in a number of states find themselves representing increasingly diverse populations out of which could emerge primary challenges or some other form of seat turnover in the near future. Many congressional districts held by African American members have large and rising Latino populations, but few of the districts occupied by Latino members have growing African American populations out of which we might imagine future African American gains.

In fact, the districts held by members of Hispanic ancestry are more lopsidedly Latino than the districts held by African Americans are weighted toward African Americans. For illustration, consider the Los Angeles-area districts of Congressional Black Caucus members Maxine Waters (D-Calif., 35th), Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif., 37th), and Diane Watson (D-Calif., 33rd) {snip} These members serve plurality Latino constituencies, at 47, 43, and 35 percent in 2000, respectively, although actual turnout is exceedingly low in all three. The venerable African American politician, and California state assemblyman, Mervyn Dymally, summed up the truth of the situation saying, “There are no safe African American districts anymore” (Mitchell 2006).

But if we take three nearby Latino districts, those of Xavier Becerra (D-Calif., 31st), Hilda Solis (D-Calif., 32nd), and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif., 34th), these all have overwhelming Latino majorities (70, 62, and 77 percent).

Figure 3 {snip} shows what the population of these congressional districts would have looked like in 1980 if the same congressional district boundaries had been in place then as now. The map for 1980 makes it abundantly clear that the neighborhoods lying within the contemporary Watson, Waters, and Millender-McDonald districts were almost entirely majority African American in that era (see Figure 3). But just 20 years later, the majority African American character of those locations had drastically eroded, cut by 50 percent, whereas the number of majority Latino neighborhoods had more than doubled.

The upshot of these figures is clear. When Representatives Waters, Millender-McDonald, and Watson retire, their seats could well be taken over by Hispanic contenders. But when Becerra, Solis, and Roybal-Allard retire, their successors will almost certainly be Latinos. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y., 15th) is a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, yet his Harlem seat could easily be taken over by a Hispanic candidate upon his retirement, given that half of that district’s constituency is Latino. Texas Black Caucus members Al Green (D-Texas, 9th), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas, 18th), and Eddie Bernice-Johnson (D-Texas, 30th), have larger African American constituencies than their California counterparts, but all have growing Latino constituencies that could result in a loss of one or more of these seats due to retirement or redistricting with the 2010 census (see Tables 2 and 3). By the beginning of the next decade, there could be six or seven fewer African American Democrats in Congress than there are today. There will be no rollback of Latino congressional representation—it will continue to expand as immigration continues and immigrants have families and naturalize.

In addition to the population growth associated with immigration, several explanations account for why Latinos are making such impressive gains in office holding. First, Latinos are working within both parties, advancing in locations where African Americans would never consider running. Whereas African American gains have come almost entirely within the Democratic Party, about one-third of Latinos regularly vote Republican, and support GOP candidates. Presently, five of the 26 Latino members of Congress are Republicans. In local elections, the propensity for Latinos to support white candidates was well exemplified in the 2001 New York mayoral race in which Latinos strongly supported the election of Michael Bloomberg over Mark Green (Logan and Mollenkopf 2002), or in the 2002 New York gubernatorial election, in which George Pataki won considerable support from Latinos in his defeat of a African American candidate, H. Carl McCall—though this support was arguably the result of apathy and low turnout among the City’s Latinos, rather than their enthusiasm for Pataki. The support of Latinos in San Antonio for Anglo Democrat Phil Hardberger (for mayor) over Hispanic candidate Julian Castro, suggests a willingness of Latinos to abandon ethnicity as a cue in some circumstances. The affinity for the GOP in some locations (e.g., Texas, Florida) provides Latinos with far more pathways for their upward political mobility than African Americans currently possess.

Moreover, Latino candidates span the ideological spectrum, whereas it is still rare to find African American candidates who stray far from the liberal left. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is a centrist Democrat and Mexican American and Florida U.S. Senator Mel Martinez is a Republican and of Cuban ancestry. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and recent New York City mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer are both liberals, while the current Miami Mayor, Manny Diaz, is a registered independent. Without question, today Latinos have a broader set of political options than African Americans (Sawyer, 2005, 271-272).

Previous studies of local politics have shown that whites more readily coalesce with Latinos than with African Americans (Meier and Stewart 1991). The predominant form of racially polarized voting in big-city elections is between whites and African Americans, not whites and Latinos. This is because white voters are more accepting of Latino candidates than they are of African American candidates—partly, perhaps, for ideological reasons. Latinos are viewed as less politically extreme, and less threatening to white interests, than African Americans. Racial affinity also plays a role. Latinos are ethnically distinct from Anglo whites, but most identify racially as white. This no doubt explains the ready acceptance among white Coloradoans of candidates such as Ken Salazar, and his brother John—both elected with white majorities, or the ready acceptance of Bill Richardson among white New Mexicans, or Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif., 18th) among white Californians. As Table 1 shows, whites and Latinos are commonly less segregated by neighborhood than African Americans and Latinos, although this is not true in all cases.


Group Conflict and the Future of African Americans in Congress

We conclude by reconsidering the future of the multi-minority or “black-brown” coalitions that were once a predictable fixture of city politics in much of the country. Their future for African American representation is in doubt largely because the rising Latino numbers suggest that they don’t need African American support to be elected. Clearly the Hispanic members of Congress identified in Table 3 do not need African American support as much as the African American members need Latino support. This emerging Latino independence of African American voters will only grow as Latino political power catches up with the sheer numerical force of the Hispanic population. That immigrants may jump ahead of African Americans on the socioeconomic hierarchy is important for determining whether they compete or cooperate (Garcia 2000). To the extent that Latinos do not find themselves in the same boat as African Americans, for instance, working in a political coalition will be more challenging.


Societies are not properly and naturally harmonious, or there would be no need for politics. But too often the demand for tolerance of diversity has made it difficult to evaluate intergroup relations straightforwardly or honestly. By drawing on the rich, emerging literature that is attempting to pin down the facts about the nature of interethnic relations, we hope to initiate fruitful discussions across political lines. In this spirit, we hope that this essay contributes to a more realistic assessment of the challenges that mass immigration poses for America in the early years of the new millennium.

African Americans continue to lack the same opportunities for education, employment, housing, health care, and venture capital available to others. African Americans’ loyal political attachment to the Democratic Party has not resulted in satisfactory policy responses to many of these problems, especially during the period congruent with the high immigration of the last 40 years. Arguably, the African American demand for affirmative action benefits other minority groups more than it does African Americans, in spite of the fact that the latter have borne the disproportionate costs of political support.

In summary, African Americans have an abiding policy interest in the enforcement of immigration laws; greater public financial support for access to higher education; reduced immigration, especially of the low skilled and less educated; greater support for progressive taxation; federal financial support to increase the supply of affordable housing; and other matters of importance to a majority of African Americans. African Americans must not only make these serious political demands, but also must be willing to back up those demands by reconsidering their entrenched political loyalties, rather than by refusing to participate.





[Editor’s Note: A PDF version of the complete article is available for reading on-line or downloading here.]

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