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The black and brown job picture

April 19, 2006|Nicolaus Mills | NICOLAUS MILLS is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence and author of "Arguing Immigration: The Debate Over the Changing Face of America."

THESE DAYS, Frederick Douglass is most often read for his firsthand account of rising out of slavery to become a leading abolitionist. But in his third and final autobiography, "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass," he turned his attention to another subject -- immigration -- and discussed it with a candor that few black politicians have shown during the current debate in Washington and beyond.

"Our old employments by which we have been accustomed to gain a livelihood are gradually slipping from our hands: Every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room for some newly arrived emigrant from the Emerald Isle, whose hunger and color entitle him to special favor," Douglass wrote. "These white men are becoming house servants, cooks, stewards, waiters and flunkies."

Douglass' specific fear about newly arrived Irish workers is no longer applicable, but his worry that immigration poses a serious threat to the well-being of black Americans is. We need only to recall Mexican President Vicente Fox's much-quoted 2005 defense of illegal immigration: "There's no doubt that the Mexican men and women -- full of dignity, willpower and a capacity for work -- are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States." The American version of Fox's observation, cleaned up so that it doesn't sound so racist, is that Mexican immigrants do work that Americans are unwilling to do.

The meaning of both versions is the same. If you own a factory or a farm and need unskilled labor, hire Mexican immigrants. You won't have to worry about healthcare, retirement or paying minimum wage. They'll live in dormitories or cars, and when you have no use for them, they'll move on.

To what degree low-skilled black workers are hurt by illegal immigration has become a subject of debate. The old estimate, by Harvard economists George J. Boras and Lawrence F. Katz, was that the wave of illegal Mexican immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between 1980 and 2000 had lowered the income of high school dropouts by as much as 8.2%. More recent figures, based on analyses that take into account changing technology and the changing labor market, suggest that the actual figure may be closer to 3.6%.

But the debate over such numbers, which vary dramatically from region to region, misses the point. What unchecked illegal immigration has done is give the country -- and most particularly those who employ low-skilled workers -- a way to ignore the economic disaster that is occurring in black America. Since the 1990s ended, the share of young black men without jobs has been growing. In 2000, 65% of black male high school dropouts in their 20s were jobless. By 2004 the figure had reached 72% and was made worse by the rise in the incarceration rate for blacks. By 2004, 21% of black men in their 20s who did not attend college had spent time in jail or prison.

The result, as a series of recent studies at Harvard, Princeton and Columbia show, is that poorly educated young black men have become more disconnected from mainstream society than comparable whites or Latinos.

Douglass, whose "Life and Times" was first published in 1881, was not the only 19th century black leader to worry about immigration. In his famous "Atlanta Exposition Address" of 1895, Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, took on the same subject, calling on white Southerners "who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South" to turn instead to native-born blacks for their workforce. "Cast down your bucket among these people," Washington pleaded, "who have tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities."

From today's perspective, Washington's plea, made at a time when the South's Jim Crow laws were about to get worse and lynching was on the increase, seems naively idealistic. But what lies behind his and Douglass' call to make black employment a priority is anything but naive. We need, once again, to appreciate the historic force behind it.

Employers and political conservatives who have fought against increasing the minimum wage, guaranteeing pensions and providing worker healthcare should not be trusted when, as a last resort, they use the language of Statue of Liberty poet Emma Lazarus and call on Congress to pass an immigration bill that would welcome the world's "huddled masses." It is when they speak like Vicente Fox that these businessmen and politicians are disclosing their real motives.

Before we talk about opening up the country to more immigration, we need to talk about justice for those with centuries-old roots in the United States who are still doing badly. Then, and only then, can we discuss bringing newcomers to this nation and not be guilty of hypocrisy.

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