The Rainbow Coalition Evaporates

Steven Malanga, City Journal, Winter 2008

Terry Anderson is angry. From his KRLA-AM radio perch in Los Angeles, the black talk-show host thunders, “I have gone on the streets and talked to people at random here in the black community, and they all ask me the same question: ‘Why are our politicians and leaders letting this happen?’” What’s got Anderson—motto: “If You Ain’t Mad, You Ain’t Payin’ Attention”—so worked up isn’t the Jena Six or nooses on Columbia University doorknobs; it’s the illegal immigrants who allegedly murdered three Newark college students last August. And when he excoriates politicians for “letting this happen,” he’s directing his fire at Congressional Black Caucus members who support open borders and amnesty for illegal aliens. “Massive illegal immigration has been devastating to my community,” Anderson, a former auto mechanic and longtime South Central Los Angeles resident, tells listeners. “Black Americans are hit the hardest.”

Though blacks have long worried that the country’s growing foreign-born population, especially its swelling rolls of illegal immigrants, harmed their economic prospects, they have also followed their political leadership in backing liberal immigration policies. Now, however, as new waves of immigration inundate historically African-American neighborhoods, black opinion is hardening against the influx. “We will not lay down and take this any longer,” says Anderson. If he’s right, it could upend the political calculus on immigration.

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But the 1960s brought a big change in the views of black political leaders, especially after President Lyndon B. Johnson and congressional supporters of liberalizing immigration claimed the mantle of the civil rights movement for their reforms, which became law in 1965 and resulted in a 60 percent increase in legal immigration over the subsequent decade. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that blacks and poor immigrants had much in common and could become political allies, which was why, in the run-up to the immigration bill’s passage, he endorsed the idea of letting Cubans fleeing Castro settle in Miami. Jesse Jackson would later herald the imminent arrival of a mighty “black-brown” or “rainbow” coalition that would—or so he claimed—propel him to the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. As it turned out, Jackson failed to win much Hispanic support, which mostly lined up behind Walter Mondale. But Jackson’s dream continued to spread among black politicians, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus, which became one of Washington’s most vocal groups opposing immigration restrictions.

Black leaders’ liberal views clearly helped soften anti-immigration attitudes within the African-American community. A 1986 New York Times poll found that a larger percentage of blacks than of whites believed that immigrants took jobs from Americans—but it also found blacks less likely than whites to favor immigration restrictions. In the California vote on Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that banned government benefits for illegals, blacks split nearly in half on the measure, while whites heavily supported it and Latinos opposed it. “Even confronted with evidence that immigrants are taking jobs from them, some blacks would say, ‘These are people who are fighting for their rights like us,’ ” says Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University political scientist and editor of the recently published Debating Immigration.

But as immigration reignited as a national issue in 2006, ambivalence has increasingly given way to opposition to current policies—and even to anger. When Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a columnist for BlackNews.com, wrote a series of pieces sympathizing with illegal aliens, the volume of hostile mail that poured in from other blacks shocked him. Illegal immigration has sizzled as a topic on African-American stations like satellite radio XM’s “The Power,” with most callers demanding more immigration restrictions. African-American bloggers have excoriated black politicians who favor liberal immigration policies. “In the realm of pandering black elites, there is no more notorious public figure than [Texas] Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee,” wrote Elizabeth Wright in the online newsletter Issues & Views. “According to Jackson-Lee, those blacks who forcefully oppose mass immigration are simply naive and are being ‘baited’ [by white opponents of immigration] into taking such negative positions.”

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What’s behind the anger, as the Pew data hint, is the rapid change that legal and illegal Hispanic immigration is bringing to longtime black locales. Places like South Los Angeles and Compton, California, have transformed, virtually overnight, into majority-Latino communities. Huge numbers of new immigrants have also surged beyond newcomer magnets California and New York to reach fast-growing southern states like North Carolina and Georgia, bringing change to communities where blacks had gained economic and political power after years of struggle against Jim Crow laws. Since 1990, North Carolina’s Hispanic population has exploded from 76,726 people to nearly 600,000, the majority of them ethnically Mexican. In Georgia, the Hispanic population grew nearly sevenfold, to almost 700,000, from 1990 to 2006.

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A case study of Los Angeles janitorial services cited in a Government Accounting Office report captures the enormity of the shift. It began in the late 1970s, as several small firms began hiring Mexican janitors at low pay, prompting building owners to drop contracts with the companies that employed blacks in favor of the cheaper upstarts. As the immigrant-dominated firms grabbed more business, industry wages slipped from a peak of $6.58 an hour in 1983 to $5.63 an hour in 1985. The number of black janitors in L.A. plummeted from about 2,500 in the late 1970s to only 600 by 1985. Today, the city’s janitorial industry, like apparel manufacturing and hotel services, is almost entirely immigrant.

Former mechanic Anderson felt the effects of low-wage immigrant competition in his old line of work. “I used to sell parts to body shops, and I knew Americans who were making $20 an hour repairing dented fenders,” he says. “Now, 95 percent of South Central L.A. body-shop jobs are held by recent immigrants making $7 or $8 an hour.” Says Joe Hicks, former chair of Los Angeles’s Human Relations Commission and now head of the nonprofit Community Advocates: “It’s hard to find a black face on a construction site or in a fast-food restaurant around here any more. People from the black community have noticed.”

As the Hispanic population has expanded in formerly black areas, Latinos have also vied more intensely with blacks for affirmative-action slots, public-sector jobs, and political power. In one notable late-1990s case that presaged future confrontations, Hispanic leaders in South L.A. launched an official complaint that blacks made up the overwhelming majority of the county hospital’s staff. A federal agency then forced the hospital to hire more Latinos, provoking bitterness among local blacks. More recently, in Compton—where Hispanics have replaced blacks as the largest ethnic group, but where blacks continue to dominate local politics—Latinos have been grumbling that they don’t hold as many jobs in the public schools as they should, given their numbers.

This battle over quotas for public-sector jobs is a glaring example of how immigration is turning the race-based policies of the last 40 years, originally designed to help blacks, against them. For African-American leaders like Claud Anderson, head of the Harvest Institute, the turnabout represents a betrayal of the civil rights movement: only blacks deserve quotas. “When did our government ever exclude immigrants or deny them their constitutional rights, as they did African-Americans?” he asks. But for other blacks, the demands of Latinos and Asians that government set-aside programs include them are further evidence that racial preferences were misguided in the first place. “Blacks who support skin color privileges now will be singing a different tune later once government starts discriminating against them once again, this time in favor of Hispanics,” writes columnist and blogger La Shawn Barber.

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Many blacks are also uncomfortable with the more prosaic cultural changes that accompany rapid immigration. Akbar Shabazz, a telecommunications consultant, moved out of Gwinnett County, a middle-class Atlanta suburb with a large African-American population, after a huge influx of foreign-born Spanish speakers suddenly created a bilingual culture in the public schools, as well as such overcrowding that some schools had to hold classes in trailers. Since 1990, Gwinnett’s foreign-born population has increased tenfold, to about 185,000—now making up about 25 percent of the total population. “There were so many students speaking Spanish in my daughter’s kindergarten class that she felt isolated,” says Shabazz, who has joined a group of blacks supporting immigration restrictions.

Some observers, aware of the historical irony, have even begun talking about “black flight” from Latino migration. In Los Angeles, for instance, the black population has declined by some 123,000 in the last 15 years, while the Hispanic population has increased by more than 450,000. “Black communities are being transformed, and it isn’t going down so well,” says Joe Hicks.

Blacks may also be starting to realize that many Latinos hold intensely negative stereotypes about them. In a 2006 study that ten academic researchers conducted of various racial groups’ attitudes in Durham, North Carolina, 59 percent of Latino immigrants said that few or no blacks were hardworking, and 57 percent said that few or no blacks could be trusted. By contrast, only 9 percent of whites said that blacks weren’t hardworking, and only 10 percent said that they couldn’t be trusted. Interestingly, the survey found that blacks were broadly well-disposed toward Hispanics, though how long that will be true remains to be seen.

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Nicolás Vaca, the writer, dismisses the notion that African-Americans and Latinos are natural allies. “A divide exists between Blacks and Latinos that no amount of camouflage can hide,” he writes in his book The Presumed Alliance. Vaca says that the split has been evident for years, though largely ignored by the media and political leaders. He contends, for instance, that the 1992 Los Angeles riots, sparked by the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King, became on the ground a black-brown confrontation in which the majority of businesses destroyed were Latino. At the same time, Vaca argues, Latinos believe that, since they had nothing to do with black oppression in America, they owe blacks nothing and “come to the table with a clear conscience.”

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For Swain, white members of Congress who favor restrictions on low-wage immigration may be representing black interests better than the Congressional Black Caucus does. Many blacks, she believes, now recognize that former political allies like the Democratic Party, white liberals, and unions have abandoned them in favor of immigrants, who represent the newest Left cause—and that the black political leadership isn’t doing anything about it.

Black politicians, noticing the growing anger within their communities, have started to shun the immigration debate. Major civil rights organizations didn’t participate in the Latino marches and protests in favor of amnesty last spring. At the Congressional Black Caucus’s annual legislative conference last September, no sessions tackled immigration, despite the issue’s national prominence. And when Sheila Jackson-Lee proposed her liberal immigration-reform bill in 2006, only nine of the CBC’s 43 members cosponsored it.

Black politicians would influence the direction of future immigration debates merely by sitting them out. Back in 1994, when initial polls showed that 65 percent of California blacks backed Proposition 187, African-American politicians and civil rights leaders began an intense campaign to change their minds, ultimately cutting black support for the proposition by 15 to 20 percentage points. But in the current environment, with discontent growing among many black voters, it’s unlikely that many African-American politicians would be as willing to undertake a similar campaign. As Earl Ofari Hutchinson recently acknowledged, “Black leaders are looking over their shoulders.”

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Growing anger over the way Hispanic immigration is changing their neighborhoods has prompted many African-Americans to rethink the notion of a rainbow coalition. Meanwhile, surveys show that many US Hispanics mistrust African-Americans and see themselves as more like whites than like blacks.

In fact, black unease about immigration goes back to the 19th century, when former slave Frederick Douglass warned that immigrants were displacing free blacks in the labor market. Many blacks supported the 1892 federal law that restricted Chinese immigration and later urged restrictions on Mexican workers. “If the million Mexicans who have entered the country have not displaced Negro workers, whom have they displaced?” asked black journalist George Schuyler in 1928.

But the 1960s brought a big change in the views of black political leaders, after congressional supporters of liberalizing immigration claimed the civil-rights mantle for their reforms. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that blacks and poor immigrants could become political allies. Later, Jesse Jackson heralded the imminent arrival of a mighty “rainbow” coalition of blacks and immigrants and touted such liberal policies as amnesty for illegals.

Such views clearly helped soften anti-immigration attitudes in the African-American community. But since immigration re-ignited as a national issue in 2006, black anger has clearly grown.

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Recent polling data suggest the shift. A 2006 Pew Center national survey found that, in urban areas where blacks and Latinos live close together, blacks were likelier to favor cutting immigration levels.

Behind the anger is the rapid change that Hispanic immigration (legal and illegal) is working on longtime black locales. Places like South Los Angeles have transformed almost overnight into majority-Latino communities.

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This Latino inpouring has intensified the feeling among blacks that they’re losing economic ground to immigrants. While research done in the wake of ’60s reforms found that immigration had only a small influence on black economic performance, the effects have grown more pronounced as the immigrant population has ballooned six or seven times over the last four decades.

A recent study by Harvard economist George Borjas and others estimates that immigration accounted for a 7.4 percentage-point decline in the employment rate of unskilled black males from 1980 to 2000. Says Joe Hicks, former chair of Los Angeles’ Human Rights Commission: “It’s hard to find a black face on a construction site or in a fast-food restaurant around here anymore. People from the black community have noticed.”

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Blacks’ anger is also rising because they realize that many Latinos hold intensely negative stereotypes about them. In a 2006 study of various racial groups’ attitudes in Durham, N.C., 59 percent of Latino immigrants said that few or no blacks were hardworking; 57 percent said that few or no blacks could be trusted. By contrast, 9 percent of whites said that blacks weren’t hardworking, and only 10 percent said that they couldn’t be trusted.

The rising tensions between African-Americans and Hispanics render the old hopes of a black-brown coalition chimerical, especially as blacks realize that Latino political gains come at their expense. A research paper by Frank Morris of Morgan State University and James Gimpel of the University of Maryland estimates that Hispanic candidates could win as many as six US House seats that blacks now hold.

This portends problems for the Democratic Party. Courting the growing Hispanic vote, almost all top Democratic leaders in Washington support liberal immigration policies, including some form of amnesty. Republicans are missing an opportunity, thinks Vanderbilt University political scientist Carol Swain. “Some Republicans have positions on immigration that would resonate in the black community, but only a few have tried to take advantage of black anger on immigration,” she says.

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