YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Are we here yet?

African Americans, silent in the immigration debate, feel our battle is being eclipsed.

April 05, 2006|ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

AS THE historic protests over a national immigration bill make abundantly clear, Latinos have arrived, especially here in Southern California. And their emphatic presence has served to make the absence of African Americans at this seminal moment all the more conspicuous. About Latinos in general and immigration in particular, black leadership has long been adrift.

Of course, that leadership has been unimpressive on many issues critical to black communities -- education, incarceration rates and healthcare, to name a few. Yet its silence on immigration, insofar as it speaks to ambivalence, is in some ways justifiable, and in more ways representative of black people generally.

We cannot help but feel that our own struggle for justice, which has long been in political twilight, is now being officially eclipsed. The march that attracted an astonishing 500,000 people to downtown Los Angeles last month immediately drew comparisons to the 1963 March on Washington and to a civil rights movement reborn. Some folks have rightly pointed out that the comparison is not quite apt; unlike illegal immigrants, black people were U.S. citizens agitating for rights guaranteed in the Constitution but denied to them in practice for a good 100 years.

But that's a technicality; today's immigrant rights movement may not be a civil rights movement, but it sure feels like one. The mass demonstrations, the street protests galvanizing large numbers of students and young people, the growing insistence that government stop treating workers of color like criminals and live up to its founding principles of equal opportunity -- for blacks, it all looks and sounds awfully familiar.

Yet the resonance is also a painful reminder of differences. The biggest one, albeit rarely discussed, is historical and cultural.

As much as people may complain about "the Mexicans," Latinos are following an immigrant narrative that Americans not only recognize, but claim as a vital part of the national identity. Concerns about gangs, language and the toll on public services are balanced (and frequently outweighed) by tacit approval of the immigrant work ethic that fits nicely with the capitalist ethic: working long hours for low pay, not complaining, not costing businesses payroll taxes or insurance premiums. In addition to saving us all money, Latino immigrants reinforce the bootstrap mentality that's such a cherished part of the American immigrant narrative, to say nothing of the family-values mentality -- say what you want about Latino birth rates, their families are extended and their marriage rates are solid.

Latinos have effectively turned all this into a challenge to America's fundamental view of itself. If it is a land of immigrants whose stories collectively tell the story of our democracy, then by resisting humane immigration reform, it is engaging in the worst kind of hypocrisy. It's an argument Latinos appear to be winning.

By contrast, the black narrative is, and always has been, alien to everyone but blacks themselves. We are an ethnic group with a how-we-got-here story so antithetical to that of immigrants that recalling it even in the most neutral terms threatens America's sense of national well-being. For the most part, we did not voluntarily come here to escape perilous conditions at home.

Blacks have no home in this sense; African heritage notwithstanding, America is our home, our starting point, and we have been trying to claim it for our whole history, with limited success. This is what vexes blacks most about immigration, even the most progressive and pro-immigration among us: the idea that people from somewhere else are ultimately accorded more of a place and a function in this country than we ever have and probably ever will be.

Latinos are breaking their silence and proclaiming their place; blacks are still scrambling to determine what our place is. Latinos are asserting their right to be here; blacks figured out the here long ago but, 200 years on, we're still trying to assert our right to be.

Despite the tension, we instinctively know our stories overlap; at the heart of the current immigration debate are issues of human rights and justice that have long been at the heart of the civil rights agenda. In his 1998 book, "Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration Is Transforming America," journalist Robert Suro predicted that blacks and Latinos would strike a kind of natural power balance. Although Latinos had numbers on their side, he wrote, blacks had history on theirs. Turns out he was only half right.

Los Angeles Times Articles