Posted May 31, 2006 – Black unemployment is twice as high as it is for Whites. The median net worth of the average African-American family is 10 times less than that of White families. Given figures such as those, why in the world would affluent Blacks hire non-Black immigrants?
The better question, say some scholars, is why not?
"The African-American middle class and upper class behave or have consumption patters similar to other Americans," said Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"I wouldn't expect there to be a major difference. We are all familiar with campaigns to buy Black, and to use Black services. But I'm not sure how deeply that sentiment penetrates labor services of the sort that we've seen performed by some immigrants.
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A Matter of Economics
Hunt said it's mostly a matter of economics. "African Americans, like everyone else, try to stretch their dollars, and if they can find cheap labor they tend to go with it."
Still, that's not easy for many to swallow, particularly since 40 percent of young African-American males are unemployed, and the median income of Black households is around $30,000, versus $48,000 for White households.
"All of us running around here trying to make it, trying to find jobs, any kind of job, and they turn around and hire somebody who just got off the boat? That don't make no sense," said Denise London, a 51-year-old nurse's aide who is currently unemployed.
More of Us Doing the Hiring
Yet, more African Americans have the means to hire. A few years ago there was one Black-owned firm for every three White-owned businesses. That disparity, according to the Urban League's State of Black America in 2006 report, has dropped to 2.5 to one.
From 1997 to 2002 the number of businesses owned by Black entrepreneurs grew more than four times the U.S. rate. In 1997, according to the U.S. Census, 823,499 Black-owned businesses employed 718,341 workers. Five years later 1,197,988 African-American businesses had 770,746 pay-rolled workers, most of them in the service and retail industries.
And though it's generally not discussed, at least in mixed company, some of these Blacks hire immigrants. They mow Blacks' lawns, wash their dishes and baby-sit their kids. They are often from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries, and they are frequently in this country illegally.
But to some African Americans, hiring a Latino immigrant is less about employing a non-Black than it is a non-White. "It can be complicated," said Percy Hintzen, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California Berkeley. "The African-American middle class has always been engaged with international issues, and always have sort of identified with the Diaspora, people in the Caribbean and those of the global south. There's a tendency for the middle class to be progressive or liberal."
Typical Middle-class Behavior
On the other hand, Hintzen said, some high-income Blacks merely take on the values of others in their class. "This is a process of bourgeois identification. As some African Americans become successful there is a tendency to replicate the styles and tastes and behaviors that are typical of the White middle class. That means depending on immigrant labor for some services."
Because both spouses must work to become middle class, for Blacks more so than Whites, affluent Blacks have a greater need for baby-sitters and other services, Hintzen said. And unlike many of their White counterparts, a higher number of well-to-do Blacks were raised in lower-class homes.
"They are more responsible for taking care of their parents, who are poorer than they and can't afford their own care," he explained. "So they're much more engaged with immigrant labor."
Lyn Lewis doesn't buy it. The University of Detroit Mercy sociology professor said, from what she sees, Blacks hardly ever hire immigrants. That is, if they can afford to hire anyone. When they can, she said, they tend to hire other Blacks.
"Geography plays a part in that. If you're in New York or California, there are more available immigrants. But mostly these are multinational corporations who are ripping these people off," Lewis said.
No Time for Immigration Worry
It's also no surprise that African Americans are not more vocal in the immigration debate. They're too busy worrying about other things, she said.
"When you begin to look at the list of issues Blacks are concerned about, undocumented immigration is not even in the top 20.
"We've got school dropout rates, economic oppression, colonization, immobilization and everything else, so when you begin to talk about undocumented workers, we ourselves are undocumented when it comes to how we are treated."
For her part, London just wants a fair shake. She said Blacks owe it to each other to hire African Americans when they can.
"I don't see Mexicans hiring Blacks, do you?" she said. "I mean, I don't have anything against them, but we have to take care of our own first."