Black-Latino relations in Los Angeles have always languished on the political back-burner. Actually, neither Los Angeles City nor County has ever adopted sustainable policy designed to improve race relations, Black Latino, or otherwise. Immigration, a critically important issue, remains largely ignored by policy makers and other leaders despite the massive increase in Latino population in L.A. that aggravates problems between Blacks and Latinos.
And a prolonged silence on this important issue, by both sides, prevents actually improving long-term relations between the two groups. California’s Black and Latino leaders should take a look at David Bacon’s essay, Black and Brown Together, (American Prospect, March 2008). It chronicles a successful Black-Latino alliance and the role of leadership, commitment and strategic organizing in dealing with seemingly intractable Black-Brown issues, immigration reform, in Mississippi. The deafening silence of California’s Black and Latino so-called leadership on this issue is reprehensible.
(The complex antecedents of Black-Brown conflict are addressed periodically in this column and include racism, segregation (de jure and de facto) ineffective parents and schools, scarce resources and reciprocal scapegoating.)
Mississippi’s strategies to improve Black-Latino relations are applicable in California whose leadership, including Black leadership, has said virtually nothing about the effects of immigrant rights on the rights of African Americans. Clearly, the issue is not a public policy or leadership priority and festers unabated. Bacon’s article is particularly relevant to Black-Brown relations in Los Angeles and illuminates local leaders’ putrid response to the controversial but critically important immigration reform debate. The following are excerpts from David Bacon’s essay:
In Mississippi, African American leaders are among 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 1990s, immigration construction workers, mostly from Florida, arrived to build the casinos. They met African Americans, many of whom had fought hard campaigns to organize unions for chicken and catfish workers—and it was not easy for new workers to fit in, most of whom did not speak English, were often cited for lacking driver’s licenses and were handed over to the U.S. Border Patrol; sometimes their children weren’t even allowed to enroll in schools.
“We decided that the place you start was trying to get a bill passed allowing everyone to get driver’s licenses, regardless of who they were or where they came from,” said Jim Evans, 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 of 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 immigration rights had a wide potential base that could help to change the state’s political landscape. In November 2001, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) was born.
In large U.S. cities, African Americans and immigrants, especially Latinos, are often 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 favored a different calculation: Blacks, plus immigrants, plus unions equal power. Since 2000, all three have cooperated in organizing MIRA.
Jim Evans chaired MIRA and Bill Chandler its executive director, believed 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 a rivalry that plagues both Blacks and Latinos in cities like Los Angeles from building real power. “But we have to fight racism from the beginning and recognize the (agenda) and leadership of the African American community,” said Eric Fleming, a MIRA staff member and former state legislator.
It is very hard to get new contracts because of the surplus of Latino labor and low membership. But MIRA is forcing companies to get rid of temporary service and hire employees directly so that African Americans gain access to those jobs, as well. After Katrina, MIRA was eventually able to recover over a million dollars—and 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. Eric 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 tasks force, African Americans must understand why people come here—largely because of what’s happening in their countries. If people had a choice, obviously, they would live (in comfort) like human beings and wouldn’t have to risk their lives to get here.”
Agreed, but it is just as important that African Americans’ rights be protected, not diminished, because of immigration reform.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org