Blacks vs. Browns

Behind the Los Angeles riot lay a grim economic competition between Latinos and African-Americans, which is intensifying and which poses a stern challenge to U.S. domestic and foreign policy, as well as to sentimental cultural attitudes about immigration
Labor's View: The Rodney King Riot a Bread Riot

I AM NOT ALONE IN THINKING SO. IN JULY OF LAST year the Black Leadership Forum, a coalition headed by Coretta Scott King and Waiter E. Fauntroy and including Jack Otero, the president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, wrote to Senator Orrin Hatch urging him not to repeal the sanctions imposed on employers of illegal aliens under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. "We are concerned, Senator Hatch," the group wrote, that your proposed remedy to the employer sanctions-based discrimination, namely, the elimination of employer sanctions, will cause another problem—the revival of the pre-1986 discrimination against black and brown U.S. and documented workers, in favor of cheap labor—the undocumented workers. This would undoubtedly exacerbate an already severe economic crisis in communities where there are large numbers of new immigrants.

Labor leaders like Otero and another co-signer, William Lucy, of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, are notoriously critical of free trade, especially to the negotiation of a free-trade agreement between the United States and Mexico. Their opposition to lax enforcement of immigration law, which creates a free trade in labor, is only consistent. What difference is there between exporting jobs and importing workers?

The politics of labor and immigration makes strange bedfellows. On most issues the Southern California Interfaith Taskforce on Central America is an extremely liberal group, but on employer sanctions it sides with Senator Hatch. In effect, SCITCA would rather see wages go down and its Central American clients have work of some kind than see wages stay high and penniless refugees be left with nothing. La Placita, the Mission Church of Our Lady Queen of Angels, near downtown Los Angeles, became for a time a sanctuary for illegal hiring.

Latino immigrants at the bottom of the labor market often claim to be doing work that "Americans" refuse to do. Are they thinking of black Americans? It may not matter. Commenting to a New York Times reporter on the extremely low employment rate for sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds in New York City in early 1992—12.6 percent Vernon M. Briggs, a labor economist at Cornell University, said, "To an immigrant willing to work two or three jobs at once, $ 5 an hour may not look bad. But to a kid from Brooklyn or the Bronx, it is a turnoff." To some of their parents these kids seem to be prima donnas, but in fact the influx of immigrants willing to work long hours for low wages has depressed wages and increased competition beyond anything that the parents ever faced. And the attitudinal difference between unskilled Americans of any race and their immigrant competition shrinks as the immigrants gain a clearer view of what faces them in the United States.

During his buoyant junior year at Wilson High School, Ricky carried a pocket dictionary. One day he told me that he had come upon an entry that had shaken him to his roots: happy-go-lucky. "That's my problem," he said. "I'm happy-go-lucky." Ricky's merry, open-faced manner was one of his greatest assets, but I think I know what he meant. I had often marveled that a boy up against so much could remain so high-spirited. I now think that he simply hadn't yet realized how much he was up against. Tension grew between him and Victor after his first release from jail. Victor wanted Ricky to take a job, any job, just to be working: dishwasher, gardener's helper, anything. Ricky drew the line at that kind of work. He was able to do rough carpentry, dry-wall work, simple plumbing. Besides his building skills, he was completely bilingual and could even write surprisingly coherent and error-free English. "I am an educated man," he said to me in a choked voice.

Both words counted. Ricky was arrested again on a drug charge, but he has never been addicted. He was dealing, and he was dealing because as he had grown more American, he had grown impatient. "Ricky wanted money. That's what got him into trouble," Victor says. Jorge G. Castaneda put it differently in an op-ed piece in the Times:

In Mexico and El Salvador, with the exception of the role played by the church in the latter country a few years ago, poverty and inequality did not outrage its victims, nor did it lead them to violence .... But the same deprivation, with the same inequities, in a radically different context, produces different effects. Poverty and injustice were not supposed to be the same: The United States was the land of social mobility, well-paid work and unlimited opportunities. Not any more. A Latin-American migrant's future is often the same as his current reality: $ 4.50 an hour for unskilled labor for the rest of his or her life, maybe with a raise to $ 6 or $ 7 an hour, eventually.

But the young Mexicans or Salvadorans who do housework in Beverly Hills, garden in Bel-Air or park Jags and BMWs for restaurants on Melrose had no idea this is what awaited them when they left Usulutan or Guanajuato. And the ideological bombardment they are now subjected to no longer helps them accept matters as they are. On the contrary, it incites rejection, indignation and class hatred. Any spark can light the fire.

So, yes, Latinos compete with blacks for work at the bottom, but they also match them in rejecting $ 4.50 an hour as chump change. And then what? Then, among other things, readiness for a bread riot (a cake riot, if you will) in which the disappointed, by the thousands, steal what they once thought they could earn.

The question of how immigrant groups may fit into the American economy without dislodging or otherwise adversely affecting native groups is itself contained in the larger question of how an American economy carrying all these groups within it can compete against other national economies. In an article given wide distribution by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Vernon Briggs claims that immigration accounts for 30 to 35 percent of the annual growth of the American labor force, a proportion virtually unknown elsewhere in the industrialized world. In 1989, Briggs writes, "the total number of immigrants from all sources admitted for permanent residence was 1,090,924 the highest figure for any single year since 1914 (and this figure did not include any estimate of the additional illegal immigrant flow or of the number of nonimmigrants permitted to work in the United States on a temporary basis during that year)."

The immigration story becomes the riot story by becoming a part of the labor story. And by an irony that I find particularly cruel, unskilled Latino immigration may be doing to American blacks at the end of the twentieth century what the European immigration that brought my own ancestors here did to them at the end of the nineteenth. Briggs writes,

When the industrialization process began in earnest during the later decades of the 19th century, the newly introduced technology of mechanization required mainly unskilled workers to fill manufacturing jobs in the nation's expanding urban labor markets. The same can be said of the other employment growth sectors of mining, construction and transportation. Pools of citizen workers existed who could have been incorporated to meet those needs—most notably the recently freed blacks of the former slave economies of the rural South. But mass immigration from Asia and Europe became the chosen alternative.

The chasen alternative. Those are the words that should disturb our sleep. People do not blow into our country like the weather. We let them in, and we have reasons for doing so. Or we should. In my city, on my own block, in my own house, I have seen the immigrant Latino alternative being chosen over the native black one.

But this is only the beginning of the problem. I am talking about a mistake that is now, as it were, complete. Blacks in Los Angeles having been largely closed out of the unskilled-labor market, the earlier-arriving Latinos are now competing with the later-arriving Latinos. This is the embarrassing fact that La Prensa seemed so little able to face and that has led lately to a Latino Unity Forum. Briggs makes disturbing reading on the consequences of increasing the pool of unskilled applicants while the pool of jobs shrinks:

No technologically advanced industrial nation that has 27 million illiterate and another 20-40 million marginally literate adults need fear a shortage of unskilled workers in its foreseeable future. Indeed, immigration—especially that of illegal immigrants, recent amnesty recipients and refugees—is a major contributor to the growth of adult illiteracy in the United States. To this degree, immigration, by adding to the surplus of illiterate adult job seekers, is serving to diminish the limited opportunities for poorly prepared citizens to find jobs or to improve their employability by on-the-job training. It is not surprising, therefore, that the underground economy is thriving in many urban centers. Moreover the nature of the overall immigration and refugee flow is also contributing to the need for localities to expand funding for remedial education and training and language programs in many urban communities. Too often these funding choices cause scarce public funds to be diverted from being used to upgrade the human resource capabilities of the citizen labor force.

Briggs's analysis seems to me to make a mockery of the brave talk of a Los Angeles "recovery." What does it mean for the city to recover in an American society that is adding at least 700,000 immigrants a year to its population? The official "Rebuild L.A." coalition, headed by Peter Ueberroth, the former director of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the former commissioner of baseball, will be hard enough pressed to cope just with the city's share of those new workers. Assimilating so many new workers while re-assimilating the thousands left jobless by the riot may well be more than the economy could handle even in a boom period, and southern California is still deep in recession. The recession may mean that fewer Americans will move to the state, but if San Diego County statistics for 1990-1991 are any indication, foreign immigration may not be similarly slowed. In that period net domestic in-migration was just 427, a steep plunge in comparison with the increases of earlier years, but foreign immigration held steady at 19,442.

And competition for goods other than employment is more acute during a recession than at any other time. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that direct public-assistance and education costs at all levels of government for immigrants and refugees entering the United States in calendar year 1990 totaled $ 2.2 billion. Immigrants and refugees made up 1.3 percent of the caseload of Medi-Cal, California's state-paid health care, in 1980; the California Department of Finance estimates that they will make up 13 percent by the turn of the century. The administrative office of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors reported in the spring of last year that federal costs for the citizen children of ineligible alien parents, including Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, had risen from approximately $ 57.7 million in 1988-1989 to $ 140.5 million in 1990-1991 and could reach $ 533 million by the year 2000. If the burden of that welfare grows too great, another tax revolt could take place, and another safety valve could be removed from places like South Central Los Angeles.

Few Californians are aware, I think, of how many public-school seats are filled by illegal immigrants. But as awareness grows, the already eroded support for public education at all levels may erode further. Nonimmigrant whites are still the majority in the state, and older whites —whose children may be grown—still turn out to vote more reliably than any other group. True, only some of the Asians burning up the track at the University of California are immigrants, but more are the children of immigrants. When whites in Berkeley's freshman class dropped to 30 percent, there was talk of a cooling of white support for the costly nine-campus system. As for the larger, more teaching-oriented California State University, it has never charged noncitizens legally resident in California a higher tuition; but a recent decision by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ken Kawaichi now requires that illegal aliens receive the same generous treatment.

By July 1, when a budget impasse for fiscal 1992-1993 forced California to begin paying many of its bills with scrip instead of money, some of the bitterest infighting had touched the third and nationally least known of the state's higher-education systems, the gigantic California Community Colleges system, with its 1.5 million enrollment. Would the heaviest community-college cuts come in shortterm vocational education, hurting blacks disproportionately? Or would continuing education take the hit, hurting older white women returning to the work force? Little noticed in public comment on the budget battle was the fact that immigrants constituted 10 percent of 1990-1991 community-college enrollment. California was providing allbut-free higher education, in other words, to 150,000 immigrant undergraduates. For comparison, Harvard and Radcliffe together enroll fewer than 7,000 undergraduates. The community-college system has to be regarded as a de facto incentive for immigration—a GI bill for people who were never Gls, as I once heard it described. If and when free higher education for immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, comes under attack, however, free elementary and high school education for them will almost inevitably come into question as well. And the social dislocation lurking in the latter question is almost incalculable.

Presented by

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In