Posted May 31, 2006 – The Latino community has shown amazing audacity with the recent protest marches. African Americans should feel some pride in the way Latinos have taken their cues from our playbook, both by taking to the streets, as we have done so many times, and by flexing their labor muscle, as the playwright Ed Bullins suggested that we do in his 1965 play, “Days of Absence.”
Proud though we might be, there is also a sense of disquiet when our Latino brothers and sisters claim they do work that no one else will do. With the Black unemployment rate at nearly 10 percent, what does that imply about African Americans?
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Working for Less
The fact is that Latinos are doing some of the low-wage or unskilled work that African Americans used to do. African Americans are hardly shrugging jobs off, though. Instead some employers have shown a decided preference for Latinos and in some cases for workers who are illegal (despite the 1986 law that subjects them to fines). Why? Often illegal immigrants will work for lower wages than African Americans, especially those African Americans who are unionized. Consider, for example, the matter of debris removal in New Orleans. Mexican immigrants accepted those jobs at $9 or $10 an hour, while the union rate for debris removal was closer to $20. The contractor that bid up to $60 an hour for debris-removal work made a greater profit by hiring the cheaper workers, but that contractor also denied African Americans the opportunity to participate in the cleanup of their communities.
African-American women used to dominate private household work, especially in the Northeast. Sisters would stand along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, in the 1950s, waiting for White women to choose them to do day work. Now, Latino men congregate in parking lots looking for casual labor, and word of mouth directs Latina women to day work. Again, these women are willing to work for less than African-American women are, and they, if they need money badly enough, more likely to work under less than ideal conditions. Black women did that work for three centuries – into the 1960s, and reject the stigma of household work today.
Greater Burden for Black Men
But even were Black women to apply for household work, it is likely that employers prefer not to hire them. And the demonization of African-American men has led to high rates of joblessness, especially among high school dropouts. According to The New York Times, “While 72 percent of Black male high school dropouts in their 20s were jobless, 34 percent of White and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts were jobless. Why do African-American men bear a greater burden from their dropout status than White or Hispanic men do? That data seem to indicate the preference for unskilled Hispanic men over African American men.
Where are the jobs, then, for unskilled African American men? And what are the perceptions that fuel the preference for Hispanic men over African American men? Interestingly, during the April 10 rallies, Latinos held up signs attesting to their “visibility.” Before those rallies, many had, indeed, been invisible and relatively silent, largely because their illegal immigrant status kept them from speaking out. The threat of deportation may have stifled activism, at least until this very recent mass action. Meanwhile, African-American men are often seen as “taking no stuff,” ready to file a lawsuit in the face of unfair treatment. Fairly or unfairly, African-American male workers may be seen as “higher maintenance” than Hispanic workers.
Proposed guest worker programs don’t make matters any better. Like illegal immigrants, guest workers are unlikely to join unions or demand fair terms and conditions of work. They are likely to be more willing than other workers to take dangerous jobs, and they are likely to suppress wages.
Taking Black Jobs?
At the same time, the new wave of Latino rights, if accompanied by union organization, is likely to have a positive effect on African-American workers. To the extent that Latinos are prepared to demand fair terms and conditions of work, pushing wages up, they remove the perception that they are cheaper and easier to manage than Black folks.
That doesn’t help us in the short run, though.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, one in six Americans say they are a family member has lost a job to an immigrant; 22 percent of African Americans said they or a family member had lost jobs to an immigrant. And while 65 percent of Whites say immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want, only half of all African Americans felt that way. More African Americans than Whites felt that immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens.
Many African Americans correctly perceive some economic displacement from the Latino community, and all the activism in the world won’t change that. The possibility of a Black/Brown coalition is eroded if these concerns remain unaddressed.
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Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a nationally recognized economist and a regular contributing columnist for BET.com.