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Southern accent on day labor

Stereotypes, language skills and lowest price come into play as black Americans and Latino immigrants compete on an Atlanta street.

December 28, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Outside the Home Depot on Ponce de Leon Avenue, no one engages in theoretical debates about whether illegal immigrants are competing for jobs with Americans.

Here, the competition unfolds whenever a truck pulls into the parking lot, its driver looking for day laborers.

On any given day, about half of the 30 or so men waiting to pounce on those trucks are Latinos, many of them undocumented. But the rest are African American men like Sam Gibbs. One chilly afternoon, Gibbs, 47, sprinted like a teenager toward a red pickup, hawking his services to two black men inside.

"Take a brother with you!" Gibbs pleaded. "I'm from South Carolina!" He had beaten out a sizable group of Latinos who soon surrounded the truck.

"Hold on guys," the driver announced. "I need a drywall finisher." He said he would pay $9 an hour.

Gibbs backed away. The Latinos began negotiating with the driver, who hired one of them for $12 an hour.

"Drywall finisher -- that's a specialty," Gibbs muttered as he walked back to his spot on the sidewalk near a Dunkin' Donuts. "Plus, he was only paying $9 an hour."

In the Deep South, like the rest of the nation, undocumented Latinos have come to dominate many of the corners and parking lots where day laborers gather. But this region is different because of the high percentage of Americans who still compete with Latino immigrants for such jobs. Although U.S.-born workers make up 7% of the day-labor pool nationwide, they account for nearly 20% in the South, according to a 2006 UCLA study.

Indeed, long before the Southern labor landscape was transformed by a tidal surge of Latin American immigrants, blacks and whites populated the "catch-out corners" in Southern communities, whistling and waving after employers in hopes of "catching out on a job" and pocketing a few tax-free dollars.

Many of the black workers who gather on Ponce de Leon today say that they cannot find regular work. Some have been laid off and some have criminal records or addictions. Others are supplementing a primary paycheck, or prefer to work under the radar, earning wages that are difficult to track. One man said he was trying to avoid court-mandated child support payments that he could not afford.

The black laborers speak of their Latino competitors with a mix of resentment, resignation and tolerance. Many reckon that tougher immigration laws would mean more work for them. But they also suspect that some old, familiar prejudices are energizing the anti-illegal-immigrant movement.

Frustration over the Latino presence was palpable in the loud, strained voice of Anthony Curtis, 42, a burly man in an orange parka. "They pick up the majority of the work," he said, motioning toward the Spanish-speaking men huddled nearby. "They dominate the corner."

But when Curtis was asked whether he supported a crackdown on illegal immigration, his voice softened. "That's a hard thing to say," he said. "You say that, you're on a racial-type mind-set. All I'm looking for is equal opportunity."


Ponce de Leon Avenue cuts through the heart of Atlanta, connecting the central city to the sprawling eastern suburbs. It looms large in local culture and history: The day laborers stand where the city's segregated baseball teams, the Atlanta Crackers and the Atlanta Black Crackers, once played home games.

The street winds through neighborhoods of wealth and want. The Home Depot is in a Midtown Atlanta shopping center with a Whole Foods market and a sushi restaurant. Up the street, the scruffy Clermont Motor Hotel lures some of the workers with rates of $40 a night.

The unregulated labor market runs on familiar principles. Jobs tend to go to low bidders, to workers with valued skills and to workers who are hungry enough to get to the trucks first. But racial stereotypes also exert an influence. Everyone agrees that it's better to be brown than to be black.

Jose Diaz, 38, an illegal immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, said he regularly saw employers shun African American workers. "They don't want to pick them up because they don't like to work," he said.

"It's 100% true that we work harder than they do," said Victor Reyes, 45, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, confident that his comments in Spanish would go unnoticed by the black workers within earshot.

It was a cold Tuesday morning. Reyes and the other men were spread out on a long sidewalk bordering the vast shopping mall complex. Blacks mingled with blacks, Latinos with Latinos -- a social segregation that is mostly the result of the language barrier.

Technically, the mall property is off-limits to the workers. They are under close watch by security guards who call police if anyone is caught loitering without the intent to shop. But if an employer and laborer can strike a deal fast enough, they can usually leave together without fear of a penalty.

Over the course of four mornings, many employers, though not all, were seen picking Latinos over blacks. They would not comment.

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