African Americans Should Voice Support for Latinos

Commentator William Jelani Cobb says African-Americans should support the plight of Latino immigrants, considering the history of African-Americans in the American workplace. Cobb is a professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta.

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ED GORDON, host:

The volunteer border patrol group known as the Minutemen Project is on the march.

This week marks the start of their planned ten-day caravan from Los Angeles to Texas, and they're looking to expand their membership. The anti-illegal immigration group is seeking out black Americans to join their ranks.

Commentator William Jelani Cobb says that this alliance would be a strange one for African-Americans, because the plight of immigrants now mirrors their own struggle, not so many years ago.

Professor WILLIAM JELANI COBB (commentator and professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta): You hear the comments with increasing frequency, a rumble of concern in black America that the Latinos are "taking over." News that Latinos now technically outnumber African-Americans was greeted in some, though not all quarters, with fear and outright disdain; as if coming in second place in the minority sweepstakes will undo the centuries of struggle we have waged to become full citizens of this country.

Perhaps this is why black America appears deeply ambivalent about the current immigration debate. But before we run off to join the Buffalo Soldier border patrol, let's ponder this familiar scenario.

Millions of migrants come north, crossing borders in pursuit of economic opportunities. Many of them are poorly educated and unskilled, but they are willing to work. They're enticed by industries that promise jobs, and since they are wiling to work for less money than the current labor force, resentment builds.

Soon it hardens into open hostility among charges that the migrants are "stealing our jobs" or "driving down wages." Then comes the violence.

This is not the story of the illegal Mexican immigrants who are at the center of the current immigration debate, but that of the nearly six million African-Americans who left the south during the great migration. In the haze of historical amnesia, we overlook the fact that these issues we are debating today are nearly identical to the issues that confronted African-Americans in our recent past.

Perhaps we need a collective reminder that we were this country's original illegal immigrants, as the ships dragging us from the African continent arrived on American shores, for decades, after the "legal slave trade" ended in 1808. The point is this: our history in this country is the strongest argument for supporting citizenship for illegal immigrants. Not only as a moral issue, but because it is also in our best interests economically.

Think back to the days when black workers accepted whatever pittance was offered, not because we wanted to, but because we had no other choice. Locked out of the political process and denied membership in labor unions, we were left with few avenues to challenge unequal pay. Viewed in that light, some of the biggest beneficiaries of the civil rights struggles were working class whites. As blacks gained political power and access to those unions, we could demand better pay. And they no longer had to compete with cheap, black labor. As a result, wages rose for both black and white workers.

Given the realities of poverty in this country, black America is disproportionately impacted by competition with the illegal labor. But "sending them back" is no solution to this problem. By some estimates, there are as many as 11 million undocumented workers in this country. At the conclusion of the Civil War, there were only four million ex-slaves, and they never succeeded in "sending us back" either.

The way to prevent this fruitless competition is to give illegal labor a path to full citizenship, and with it, avenues to demand decent wages. No one wants to volunteer to be underpaid. And yet as long as we have a two-tiered system of employment in this country, both blacks and Latinos will continue to compete for crumbs at the bottom of the economic barrel.

We, if no one else, should understand what it means to be cheap labor with no citizenship rights. In the midst of this debate, black America literally cannot afford to forget where we came from.

GORDON: William Jelani Cobb is a professor of history at Spelman College and author of, The Brink of Dawn: A Freestyle of a Hip-Hop Esthetic.

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