California’s Black and Latino leaders should take a hard look at David Bacon’s essay, “Black and Brown Together,” (American Prospect, March 2008). It’s about a successful Black-Latino alliance, and the role of leadership, commitment and strategic organizing in dealing with the seemingly intractable Black-Brown issues, especially immigration reform. The deafening silence of California’s Black and Latino leadership’s on the latter alone, is reprehensible.
(The complex antecedents of current Black-Brown relations are addressed in previous Urban Perspective columns; they include racism, segregation (de jure and de facto), ineffective parents and schools, scarce resources and reciprocal scapegoating.)
Mississippi’s Black-Brown efforts apply directly to California that has turned a blind eye to the issue of immigration rights—and Blacks’ perceptions of those rights. The issue is not a public policy or leadership priority and festers unabated. Bacon’s article applies to Black-Brown relations in Los Angeles, and illuminates its putrid response to immigration reform. The following are excerpts from the essay.
“In Mississippi, African American leaders are the foremost champions of the state’s growing Latino population. Someday soon, they hope, the new alliance will transform the state’s politics.
In 1991, seeking to boost its never robust economy, Mississippi passed a law permitting casino gambling and throughout the 19990s, immigrant construction workers arrived from Florida to build the casinos. They met African Americans, many of whom had fought hard campaigns to organize unions for chicken and catfish
workers—but it was not easy for newcomers to fit in: Workers did not speak English and were often cited for lacking drivers’ licenses and handed over to the U.S. Border Patrol. Sometimes their children weren’t even allowed to enroll in schools.
“We decided that the place to start was trying to get a bill passed allowing everyone to get drivers’ licenses, regardless of who they were or where they came from,” says Jim Evans, the AFL-CIO’s state organizer and leader of the Black Caucus in the state legislature. In the fall of 2000, labor, church and civil rights activists formed an impromptu coalition and went to the legislature. At the core of the coalition were former organizers of Mississippi state workers and a growing caucus or Black legislators sympathetic to labor. Evans, with State Senator Alice Hardin, headed the group. The bill passed the Senate unanimously, but died in the House. Nevertheless, the close fight convinced them that a coalition supporting immigrants’ rights had a wide potential base that could help change the state’s political landscape. In November, 2001, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) was born.
In big U.S. cities, African American and immigrants, especially Latinos, often are divided by fears that any gain in jobs, or political clout, by one group can only come at the expense of the other. In Mississippi, African American political leaders and immigrant organizers favor a different calculation: Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power. Since 2000, all three have cooperated in organizing MIRA.
Jim Evans chairs MIRA, and Bill Chandler, its executive director, believe social justice and political practicality converge in the state’s changing demographics. Because of MIRA’s experience, activists see a big advantage in having the chance to avoid the rivalry that plagues Los Angeles and build real power. “But we have to fight racism from the beginning and recognize the leadership of the African American community,” says Eric Fleming, a MIRA staff member and former state legislator.
It was very hard to get new contracts because of the surplus of Latino labor and low membership. But MIRA’s forcing companies to get rid of temporary service and hire employees directly meant that African Americans gained access to those jobs too. After Katrina hit the Gulf, MIRA was eventually able to recover over a million dollars—this was while the federal government said it would not enforce labor standards “or other laws protecting workers.”
Organizing guest workers is part of an effort to build a MIRA membership among immigrants themselves. MIRA members and volunteers mobilized thousands for a rally in Jackson when the national immigration marches began in the spring of 2006.
Fleming concludes, “Finding common ground among immigrants, African Americans and labor is the pillar of MIRA’s long-term strategy. In order to organize a multi-racial task force, African Americans must understand why people come here—because of what’s happening in their countries. If people had a choice they could live like human beings, they wouldn’t have to risk their lives to get here.”
Larry Aubry n can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.